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Staying private: County's private schools see little decrease in enrollment despite economic downturn

LAWRENCEVILLE — When the economic downturn hit, Laurel Simpson said her family's life changed completely.

Her husband closed his brick distribution business and the family moved from the Sugarloaf Country Club to a smaller home in Duluth. Simpson, who had only worked for her husband, got a job with Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, and her husband opened a new business that repairs cell phones and computers.

"Everything about our lifestyle has changed," Simpson said. "I've gone back to work. My husband started a new business. We don't eat out anymore. We pinch pennies at the grocery store."

The last thing the family wanted to give up was where their children attended school: Greater Atlanta Christian. Simpson said her son had been at the school since kindergarten, and her daughter started at the private Christian school as a preschooler.

At the beginning of the 2008-09 academic year, the family did the last thing they wanted to do. Simpson and her husband withdrew their children from Greater Atlanta and enrolled them in public school.

Simpson said she quickly realized her daughter, an honors student, would be repeating the courses she took the previous year at the private school. She was given the option to move her up a grade, but she said she didn't want to rush her daughter's childhood.

So she called Greater Atlanta Christian's president and told him her family needed help.

"We were able to work something out (with the tuition), and I moved my daughter back," Simpson said.

Simpson didn't disclose the financial deal she made with the school. ("They were very, very supportive and kind," she said. "They basically said, ‘What can you afford?'") A school spokeswoman said the school's tuition ranges between $12,000 and $14,000 per student each year.

At first, Simpson said her son offered to remain in public school, but she knew he was unhappy there. Within a couple of weeks, he was back at Greater Atlanta Christian, too.

Keeping their children at their school of choice hasn't come without sacrifices, Simpson said.

"Our life has changed drastically, but we've never been happier," she said. "We feel like we've lost nothing of value."

Throughout Gwinnett County, private school administrators said they've felt the impact of the recession. The effects, however, haven't been as great as some feared. While most schools have experienced a decrease in enrollment, the drop wasn't as big as some planned. The school officials said they are also doing more to assist families who come to them for help.

This year, Greater Atlanta Christian provided financial aid for a number of families who struggled with personal financial challenges, and the school plans to do the same next year, President David Fincher said.

Because of financial planning in the early 2000s, the school built a reserve and an endowment for more difficult times, but thus far hasn't had to tap any reserves, he said. The school's budgets have remained in the black.

"Certainly, we've dedicated more attention to financial stewardship in the last two years," Fincher said. "It's always important, but especially in these unprecedented times. Still, we regularly remind ourselves that Greater Atlanta Christian's mission is not financial. It's merely a tool to support our mission to help our students grow in heart, intellect, leadership, faith and character. Our energies remain focused on our mission for Jesus, children and teens."

This year, Greater Atlanta Christian's enrollment dropped by about 1 percent, from 1,950 students to 1,900.

Wesleyan School has also experienced more requests for financial aid. Unlike most private schools in the county, Wesleyan's enrollment increased by eight students to 1,091, a school spokesman said.

"We are thankful that families value a Wesleyan education to the degree that they are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to send their children," spokesman Chad McDaniel said. "For an independent school to grow in this economic climate is nothing short of a miracle. God has blessed us in a number of ways, and we are grateful for his presence in every aspect of our school."

Wesleyan's tuition ranges from $15,195 to $17,530, depending on the grade level of the student, according to the school's Web site.

Many smaller schools are dealing with more pronounced difficulties.

Killian Hill Christian School budgeted for a 10 percent decrease in student enrollment, headmaster Paul Williams said. The number of students, however, only fell by 3 percent — from 515 last year to 490 this year.

While the school experienced a small hit in enrollment, the amount of financial aid that it gives out grew by about 40 percent, Williams said.

"One benefit of the business we're in is that it's a pretty impassioned customer base," Williams said. "I believe the reason why they chose private school to begin with has some deep-seated roots in their priorities for education, which would include the quality of education and faith-based education. (Families') reasons for wanting that still exists, even though times are tough."

Collins Hill Christian School's enrollment dropped by about 10 percent this year; school administrator Dan Huff said the school has about 25 fewer students. The school has 225 students in prekindergarten through seventh-grade this year. One reason for the enrollment decline was that the school did not have enough students to offer an eighth-grade class.

"This has been the toughest financial year we've ever experienced," Huff said." We've been in existence for 16 years."

The small private school does not offer financial aid, but it has worked to help families by restructuring tuition payments when necessary, Huff said.

"I know we've had a lot of families in our school who are definitely committed to Christian education and will do everything they can do to keep their kids in this environment," he said. "For many, it's not a luxury. For many, it's a necessity."