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Private school enrollment on the rise in Lodi

Despite poor economy, families are still paying for faith-based schools

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Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 7:34 am, Wed Sep 28, 2011.

Despite a sluggish economy, families are still paying for private school in Lodi — and at least one local school has a waiting list for the first time in years.

Two years ago, some were doing well and seeing an increase in donations, while others were struggling to keep enrollment up and the coffers full.

“The reality is, private school is a luxury that some families can’t afford,” Century Christian School Principal Chris Finch said at the time. “They have to decide between keeping the lights on and paying the mortgage.”

Two years ago, enrollment for the fall semester was down 20 to 25 percent. This year’s is in line with 2010-11.

“To date, we are only down about 15 students from last year, and considering the substantial drops in enrollment from each of the last three years, we are glad that this year things seem to be slowly turning around,” Finch said this week.

The Association of Christian Schools International has been studying the trend. Researchers found that beginning last school year, with fewer Christian schools in operation — 210 closed in the greater Sacramento area in 2008 — student enrollment appeared to be stabilizing throughout the country.

Rohn Ritzema, director of the Northern California region, said roughly 60 percent of schools in the area are reporting increased enrollment.

Despite a tough economy, these parents are paying more than $3,500 annually for their education.

“Parents know that despite the challenges in the economy, their children are their most important investment, and we have seen that committed and caring parents are willing to make sacrifices to ensure their kids receive the best education possible,” Finch said.

“At the end of the day, the best schools, public or private, have excellent teachers and small class sizes. We at Century are blessed to have both, and I am confident that that is why we continue to have some of the best students in the Lodi area — in spite of the financial climate we all face today,” he said.

Smaller class sizes

Private schools boast smaller class sizes than their public counterparts and expanded curriculum often cut at public schools. Private students also go on field trips, a luxury that has been cut at some public schools due to shrinking budgets.

Vineyard Christian Middle School sixth-graders recently returned from a week-long science camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains, while the seventh-graders spent a week in Catalina, where they lived aboard a tall ship.

They received science and history lessons, in addition to kayaking, snorkeling with sea lions and learning to sail, Principal Karen Hale said. All schools teach core subjects, but the faith-based ones strive for more, according to Audie Silber, a teacher at Lodi Seventh-day Adventist Elementary School.

“Although we teach reading, writing and math just as the public schools do, we also continue to teach social studies, science and art as an integral part of the curriculum,” she said. “If you talk to any teachers of lower grades at (Lodi Unified School District), you’ll find that these subjects have become ‘off-task’ activities because they are not tested in the state standardized tests — they are viewed as time-wasters by many school administrations.”

She claims Lodi SDA students get at least twice as much music instruction as their K-8 public school counterparts, including twice-weekly music theory in kindergarten through fourth grade, and band, choir and bell choir for fifth through eighth grade, with opportunities to perform. Students can also take private music lessons during the school day.

Student learning, as opposed to student testing, is the focus, Silber said.

“Our students participate in annual standardized testing one week per year. The public school counterparts spend seven weeks per year with state and district testing. That’s almost a whole school quarter lost to testing,” she said.

She taught fourth through sixth grades in Lodi Unified and instructed teachers in the district’s now-defunct Writing Institute before being hired at SDA.The school has seen a large number of students transfer from public schools in recent years.

Among them are the Hill family. Fourth-grader Elise was moved last year, and her third-grade brother, Rhett, followed this year.

“We were tired of our kids being taught to take tests and were ready to be taught a love of learning,” father Erik Hill said.

“Other benefits (to transferring) are the humanity the kids are taught creates kids you want your kids to emulate and be around. That has nothing to do with religious teachings,” he said. “When I saw that with my daughter, I wanted it for my son. It costs a lot more, but so be it.”

Jihyen Park enrolled her secondand third-grade sons in private school this year because she wanted them to have a Christian learning foundation.

“When they are young, it is more important to have that kind of education because they are more active and learning more,” she said.

She has two older daughters attending public high school, but they went to private elementary school.

“We had a good outcome at the Adventist school they attended. They focused on building character and leadership,” Park said, adding that she now sees a disparity between teacher-student ratio at the public and private schools.

“I don’t think the teacher can give all the attention needed for my older kids,” she said of the 35 students in some of their public school classes.

Full kindergartens

At Century Christian School, families from last year re-enrolled, which seems to indicate families’ incomes have at least stabilized, according to the Finch.

“The most encouraging news is in our younger grades, as they are doing very well,” he said.

As with public schools, kindergarten is full.

“That is encouraging, as usually that means a greater confidence in younger families to enroll their children in private education,” Finch said.

Enrollment at Jim Elliot Christian High School has remained good, despite the economy. It is currently at capacity with 224 students enrolled, and for the first time has a waiting list of others who would like to attend.

With 149 students in the elementary program, Lodi Christian School is also up five students, according to Principal Nadine Zerbe.

And St. Anne’s Catholic School has three more students than at the end of the school year.

“In this economy, just maintaining is a challenge,” Principal Dennis Taricco said, giving much credit to the school’s advisory committee for marketing the school.

Class sizes in kindergarten through fifth grade average 26 students, and each class has an aide from 8 a.m. to noon.

The average class size in sixth through eighth grade is 29. However, math, science and language classes are divided so no teacher is teaching more than 16 students at a time, according to Taricco.

At Vineyard Christian, enrollment is holding steady with 78 students currently in sixth through eighth grade. That is two more students than last year at this time, according to Hale.

The school is currently at 90 percent capacity, with 30 students in eighth grade, 26 in seventh and 20 in sixth. The school’s policy permit a maximum of 30 in one grade (or two), if another grade is low in enrollment.

“We are obviously happy and grateful that our enrollment has held steady over the years, and during this economy,” Hale said. “Many of our families are making great sacrifices in order to have their children attend.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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