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Iowa City's private schools beginning to recover from recession

BY GABRIELLA DUNN | SEPTEMBER 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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While the Iowa City School District is one of the fastest growing district in the state, local private schools are just beginning to bounce back from a decline in enrollment following the recession. Iowa City has grown by more than 10,000 residents since 1990. For the Iowa City’s School District, enrollment has been at an all-time high. Kate Moreland, community relations’ coordinator for the district, said enrollment is growing between 300 and 500 kids per year.

However, private schools have taken a hit becasue of recent economic woes. Myra McGovern, an official at the National Association of Independent Schools, said nationally, when the recession hit, fewer families were applying to private schools, while a larger number of families applied for financial aid. McGovern said enrollment in private schools hit a peak in 2008 and 2009 but crashed alongside the stock market.

“For many Americans, that was the dramatic moment,” McGovern said. “For many independent schools they had already started that school year, and parents had already paid tuition, so they weren’t going to take their kids out of school.” As the economic outlook for the country slowly increases, local private schools are starting to see the effect of that.

“[In the past] we had a waiting list throughout the entire elementary school,” said Lee Iben, the president of Regina Catholic School. “If you went back 15 years, when you found out that you were pregnant, you got your kids name on the waiting list at Regina.” Iben said prior to the recession, Regina’s enrollment was approximately 900 students, excluding the preschool. This year, he said, it’s at around 820 students with 90 preschoolers.

According to the United States National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in private schools for students in preschool through 12th grade has been decreasing since 2001. From 2008 to 2009, after the recession hit, enrollment dropped by 219 students nationally. Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, said on a national level, religious school enrollment has taken the hardest hit.

“I guess the big story over the last five years has been the decline in Catholic school enrollment,” he said. “Particularly on urban Catholic schools. A lot of inner city parents were not able to afford those tuitions.” Nationally, for Catholic schools, between the 1989-1990 and 2010-2011 school years, there has been an 11.4 percent enrollment decrease.

Regina, Heritage Christian School, Montessori School of Iowa City, and Willowwind School all have seen consistently high demands for enrollment in their preschool program, but even that has been negatively impacted by the growth of public preschool programs. “Part of our variance, that we’re aware of, has to do with the inclusion of preschool programs within the public-school system,” said Connie Guiberson, head of the School at Montessori. “[Also] families are changing … in regard to working at home and who is available to be at home.”

Despite the general decreases in enrollment nationally and locally, one local school has not felt the effects of the recession like other schools. Heritage has seen an 80 percent increase in enrollment in the past nine years.  The 2009-10 school year marked the first year for Heritage in their newly built facility to accommodate increased enrollment. Their growing pains did not stop there, though.

“If we continue to grow at this same rate at which we’ve been growing, we’re going to be filling this building to capacity,” said Heritage Principal Mike Annis. “We don’t have any additional classroom space in which to expand in this current building.”


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