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VOL. 44 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 2, 2020

Pandemic flight lifts private enrollment

Closed Nashville schools send parents scrambling for relief

By Hollie Deese

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The start of the academic school year this fall looked like none other in our generation.

Parents today have never lived through a pandemic, and it’s safe to say that even if there were guidelines on how to navigate it in any parenting books, it was not high on the priority list of parents trying to get a handle on food allergies and sleep schedules.

And for even the most easygoing parent, handling the chaos COVID-19 has thrown into their education schedule has been tough to navigate. They are suddenly weighing everything from safety risks to social worries while juggling inconsistent hybrid schedules and a whole new way of doing math.

But one thing has become very clear for single parents and couples who depend on two incomes – suddenly having their children at home and maintaining a career is just not sustainable.

And so a growing number of Middle Tennessee parents have decided to remove themselves from the uncertainty of a public school system grappling with a pandemic and enroll their children at area private schools in hopes of a more predictable outcome – namely, having their children in school fulltime.

And it doesn’t matter how good their school district is.

Shelly Bearden and her husband both work fulltime with three children all zoned for Forest Hills schools, including Percy Priest Elementary. But with the Metro Nashville Public Schools not in session and no end in sight, the broker with Worth Properties ended up enrolling her children, who are in kindergarten, fourth and fifth grades, in three different private schools, taking spots she could find that were available in order to get her family back to some kind of routine.

Students are spread out in classrooms at St. Edwards School, which has seen a significant increase in school enrollment due to Metro Schools closing for COVID-19.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

And she says she isn’t the only one as parents were left scrambling to come up with a solution after they were told they would have the choice to go back to in-person learning but were denied once the school year began. One of her friends from the school enrolled all four of her children in Catholic school. Others remain secretive about potential plans for fear of an existing slot disappearing.

“We were told in the summer that we would have the choice, that if we didn’t go back to school, that we would still have the choice to either send our kids or do virtual,” Bearden says. “So we didn’t apply for any private schools, like so many of my friends, because we thought we would have the choice to go.”

When the school year began and they learned they did not have the option to send their children after all, Bearden expected an opening date to be announced. “Williamson County opened, everybody was opening,” she says. “So we sat around and waited because they said there was going to be some date that they would open, and that never happened. So that’s why we chose to go - we just needed to be in person and they’re still not open. They’re still not open.”

Enrollment boom

The result of the push for parents like Bearden to get their children back in school has resulted in a private school enrollment boom across Middle Tennessee that has meant wait lists, stressed parents, and private schools doing what they can to accommodate a growing need.

And parents are prepping too, hiring tutors and helping their children get an edge over another student for a coveted spot.

Kindergartener Thomas Francisco, 5, takes a peak at what his classmate is doing during activities St. Edward School.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“As a parent, one is always looking out for the future of their children, trying to make the best possible decisions for their future,” says Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, an education consulting firm based in Silicon Valley. “Even families who traditionally could not readily afford private school tuition are re-budgeting to make private school tuition possible in the face of public schools not addressing the needs of many families in these challenging times.”

Bearden has seen it firsthand, estimating at least 100 students have left Julia Green and nearly 80 have left Percy Priest, all battling for limited private enrollment.

“A lot of people that are from here, that live here, are so worried that all of these people moving from out of state are going to take their private school spot,” Bearden says. “And so that’s a big concern amongst the parents who don’t have a legacy who are up against the guys coming from New York. ‘What’s their education background. And are they going to test better than our kids? And are they going to take our spot?’ That is a talk that happens daily amongst my circle.”

One school that has seen a huge increase in enrollment since the beginning of the school year is St. Edward. From the end of the last school year to today, the prekindergarten through eighth grade school’s enrollment numbers have jumped by more than 60 students.

Susan Blankenship, a 19-year MNPS veteran who is now headmaster at St. Edward School.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

It’s been a handful in Susan Blankenship’s first year as principal. But, she was able to combine her nine years of knowledge of the school as a parent and parishioner with her 19 years with Metro Nashville Public Schools, the last seven as principal at Sylvan Park and Waverly-Belmont, to come up with what she felt was best for their existing families and the many new ones who found St. Edward’s after making the switch because of COVID.

“When I came on, I would say we had 104 signed contracts for this coming year, which was a very low number for us,” Blankenship says. “However, once we started really recruiting over the summer, and then the diocese did a big push for in-person learning, we really hopped on board with that. And with advertising that, we were able to secure another 62 students, which was huge. And so our current enrollment is 165.”

Even with a pandemic, it is quite a feat for Catholic schools in particular to see such a huge jump in enrollment when they have been facing a slow and steady decline in student numbers – locally and nationwide – during the past decade.

“Our overall enrollment started out down 2% from opening day last year,” says Mike Lavigna, director of marketing for the Diocese of Nashville. Now their enrollment is past that.

“There was an increase in people wanting to go back to private school at some point in July,” he adds. “We did a big marketing campaign and we saw a big bump in enrollment.”

Lavigna adds now some schools have limited capacity to properly social distance, and some have a waiting list for specific grades, especially middle school grades, which seemed to jump the most after the school year started.

Now he says they are building for the future, including investing in training to help children deal with emotional issues because of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has shown us that the smaller class sizes has made us more flexible to be able to accommodate and get through a pandemic like this,” Lavigna acknowledges. “And I think even at normal times, that’s one of the big benefits of a Catholic school is that we’re able to give more individualized attention to families and meet their needs.”

And while St. Edward still has openings, some of their classes are completely full. But if some class waitlists get too long, a new hire isn’t totally out of the question to accommodate the growth. They had been considering opening a second kindergarten class this year to accommodate requests, but decided to have that as a goal for next year as they grow enrollment.

“We want to serve the community,” Blankenship says. “I do feel like we have been able to step in and serve a great need for families who have to go back to work, for parents who have to go back to work. And so we take pride in that. We’ve been able to fill a gap that’s there for some of these families.”

Ripple effects

Alina Adams runs the website NYCSchoolSecrets.com, helping New York City parents find the right schools for their children. COVID-19 has prompted many more requests than usual, she says, for help with transferring from public to private schools. And the effects of that will transcend both institutions.

“The long-term effects may include families realizing what’s possible in education, and demanding the same from public schools as they’d previously been getting in private,” Adams says. “In addition, it could lead to a stronger push for school vouchers and other forms of school choice.”

Private school applications are at an all-time high, Koh says, and he only expects competition to get more intense.

“Many private schools have rescinded their sibling policies that give preferential treatment to siblings to handle the influx of applicants,” Koh explains. “Moreover, some of the wealthiest families in states with more aggressive school closings like California are looking to temporarily move to other states so that their children can attend school physically and maintain normalcy and the benefits of socialization.

“To temporarily move and maintain a spot, means paying tuition even if your child is not in attendance. While this is not a common strategy, it is happening enough that it underscores the dramatic competition for private school admissions in America.”

Now Bearden and her husband have constant conversations about what’s next. Previously committed to public school they are now considering sticking with private.

“It’s a conversation that happens daily,” she says. “My oldest is going to stay in private school, and my fourth grader is also going to stay in private school. And then my 5-year old, I am applying for private school because I’m not sure if I trust that they will even be back next year simply because we’re not going to have a vaccine.”

And it is a bitter pill for them to swallow even if they like the new schools because of the community they had already built at Percy Priest.

“This is gut-wrenching,” she says. “That was our place.”

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