Bucking U.S. trends, Austin's private schools experience enrollment growth

Austin Jewish Academy has an enrollment of 105 students for the 2018-19 school year, up 15 from last year.

Austin Jewish Academy has an enrollment of 105 students for the 2018-19 school year, up 15 from last year.

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A wider look
Despite changing demographics in Austin and declining enrollment at Austin ISD, leadership at Central Austin private schools said they are seeing sustained—even increased—interest from area families.

This is true at the Girls’ School of Austin, where enrollment has remained steady—150 students, its capacity—for the last several years.

“[E]ach year we have more applicants than the year before,” Director of Communications Linda Maher said.

This bucks national trends.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, private school enrollment in prekindergarten through 12th grade has dropped from 6 million in fall 1999 to 5.8 million in fall 2015.  The NCES attributed this decline “primarily” to a decreasing number of students enrolled in Catholic parochial schools.

While some religious schools in Austin have seen their enrollment decline, others have not.

“Within the last five years, we’ve seen an influx of students living farther north, farther east and farther south,” said Travis Butler, principal of San Juan Diego Catholic School in South Austin.

The school draws its students from 23 ZIP codes in and around Austin and has made accommodations to support them, such as providing transportation options, he said.

Butler said the school’s appeal derives, in part, from its corporate internship program.  For some families, this work experience is worth what he called the “conscientious investment” in tuition.

The city’s growth has not benefited AISD. The district has seen its enrollment drop by roughly 5,000 students in the last five years and expects to lose more than 7,000 in the next decade, per demographic reports.

District officials attribute the loss to the growing popularity of charter schools and the displacement of families from the urban core as housing prices continue to climb.

To combat this issue, Austin ISD began accepting out-of-district transfer requests in February.

Private schools continue to see their students hailing from all over the region.

“If the school district isn’t working where they are, [the parents] are still driving into Austin [for work],” said Caroline Wilson, director of admissions for Griffin School, a high school in Hyde Park that counts students from Pflugerville, Round Rock, Westlake, Dripping Springs and Buda.

On the other hand, Austin Jewish Academy Principal Chris Aguero said long commutes can deter families.

“It’s not easy to get here in the morning,” he said.

Recently, however, the school has seen increased enrollment among students whose families are not Jewish.

“It’s really a point of pride for us,” Aguero said, explaining that the school’s progressive approach and community focus has broad appeal.

Private school leaders emphasized their unique offering as reason for sustained enrollment.

“We really specialize in kids who could not make it in a public school,” said Pam Nicholas, director of the Huntington-Surrey Preparatory School, a small middle and high school in Northwest Austin.

The school’s enrollment varies from 15 to 40 per year; its programs serve a wide variety of students, including those diagnosed with mental illness and those requiring accommodations for learning disabilities, she said.

“Our kind of school is there because we provide a very special service for these kids, and they need to be there,” she said.
By Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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