Volunteers and parents keep private schools in operation
Local private schools don’t have the challenge of figuring out what to do with $6,137 per student, the reduced amount School District 51 will receive from the state’s funding formula this year.
Private schools in this area don’t receive any money from the state funding formula. Instead, the Grand Valley’s 11 private schools rely on tuition, fundraising, registration and materials fees, and/or support from a church affiliated with the school to fill up their budgets.
While public schools are reaching for ways to do more with less as new requirements kick in and budget cuts continue, private schools have been operating with less for years. Because they don’t receive state or local funding, private schools also don’t have to operate the same way as public schools. Standardized tests, bus transportation and accepting students with specialized needs, or having people to run those programs, is not required.
Randy David, administrator at Pear Park Baptist School, said the school administers standardized tests but cannot afford to educate all students. Pear Park gets $1,190 to $2,025 in tuition per student, depending on grade level, and it relies on Pear Park Baptist Church to pay for its facilities and utilities. David, also the pastor of the church, said his secretary works for the school and the church, and he is able to save money on benefits by having two full-time and seven part-time teachers.
David said the model works as it is now, but he’s not sure the school could operate with more than 100 students or afford to be less selective. Its middle school and high school, for example, is closed to students who do not attend Pear Park Baptist Church or an affiliated congregation.
“We’re a small Christian school with 35 kids. We can’t deal with special education, that kind of thing,” David said.
Volunteers fill gaps
Some private schools do take on specialized populations. About 25 of Holy Family Catholic School’s 390 students are learning English as a second language, according to Principal Ann Ashwood, and another 25 are on special-education plans. The school cannot afford a special-education specialist, so District 51 helps the parochial school create special-education plans for Holy Family students who need one, and Holy Family’s teachers implement the plan.
Ashwood said Holy Family teachers take a salary that is 73.5 percent of what they would be paid to teach in District 51 because it is a “mission” for them to educate children. The school has 50 staff members and is able to do without certain positions by multitasking, Associate Principal Jake Aubert said.
“It’s a complete team concept. That’s why Sister Ann teaches, that’s why I teach, that’s why the secretaries volunteer. Anything that’s needed, everyone steps up,” he said.
Ashwood said the school doesn’t just attract rich parents and model students. But it does attract families committed enough to pay $4,600 a year, even if that money is not easy for the parents to spend.
“We have all the societal pressures and problems any other school has,” she said. “Not everyone who comes to Holy Family has a lot of money. Parents make a sacrificial commitment to be here.”
That sacrifice includes each parent fulfilling a requirement to volunteer for at least 20 hours a year at the school. Char Hacker, the paid reading specialist and intervention coordinator at Holy Family, pairs volunteers with students based on a volunteer’s expertise for one-on-one or one-on-two interventions.
In the mornings, during a time when eighth-graders have study hall, Hacker leads interventions in a corner of the school library and has eighth-grade mentors practice reading and spelling with younger students. Foster Grandparents, who receive a stipend from St. Mary’s Hospital to volunteer, also participate.
“They go through training with me or a classroom teacher,” Hacker said.
The volunteers also must pass background checks and go through an online program about appropriate interaction with students.
District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz said local public schools also encourage volunteers to come to the classroom, but not to fully replace Reading Recovery teachers and other intervention professionals the district lost during recent budget cuts.
“That’s one of the challenges we face ... even a paraprofessional may not have the expertise to work with that child,” Schultz said. “We have to be cautious. Teachers don’t just go online and get a teaching certificate. It takes a level of skill.”
Extra funding scarce
Private schools can receive federal funding if they qualify, including free and reduced-meal reimbursements or money for at-risk students. But most don’t: 56 percent of private schools in the United States choose not to participate in those programs because their students don’t qualify, or because the school doesn’t want to take government money, according to a 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Education.
Even if they opt for federal funding, it doesn’t cover everything. For example, District 51 Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan-DeVita said federal funding currently covers 30 percent of the cost for special-education programs at any school or district.
“With special education, some students need personal aids, plus occupational therapy. We have to provide them with those services, and those are not cheap,” she said.
Tuition increases are a possible source of extra revenue. But increasing tuition in this economy is risky, according to Bookcliff Christian School Administrator Michael Shockley. Shockley said he did not raise the school’s $3,600 tuition this year, not because he couldn’t use more money, but because he was losing families who were struggling to make the financial commitment.
“We were losing people left and right because of finances,” he said.
Shockley said the school saved money in recent years, when enrollment has dipped, by freezing teacher salaries, cutting his own salary, taking fewer staff trips for professional development, and using textbooks for a longer period of time. The school also negotiated with Bookcliff Baptist Church to pay a smaller share of utility costs because the school is using less of the building.
The 67-student school has one kindergarten teacher, one teacher for first and second grades, another for third and fourth grades, one teacher for a combined fifth and sixth grade, and one teacher for seventh and eighth grades.
Shockley said the school gets 10 to 12 percent of its income from fundraisers, such as an annual golf tournament, but it’s not always enough.
“It’s been almost hand-to-mouth the entire time I’ve been here,” said Shockley, who has been in charge of the school for three years. “That’s true of private education all over the country.”