Enrollment, interest in area private schools surge

As parents seek options for their children's education, Northwest Austin–area private schools are responding with new locations and additional classrooms. Three private schools are opening their doors this fall in Northwest Austin, and Austin International School—an existing private school in Northwest Austin—relocated to accommodate growing enrollment.

Bluebonnet School of Canyon Creek opened in June on RM 620 and offers preschool through kindergarten programs. Cornerstone Academy, a home-based private school located just south of Anderson Mill Road, opens in the fall and will have classes for upper elementary and middle school students. Schoolhouse Academy, also opening this fall, will offer kindergarten through second-grade classes.

Many private schools in the area have experienced a nearly 10 percent increase in enrollment in the last two school years, according to enrollment figures provided by some private schools.

In comparison, Austin ISD's enrollment rose by 1.5 percent between the 2009–10 and 2010–11 school years, the most recent data available, while Round Rock ISD expanded by almost 6 percent and Pflugerville ISD by 4.5 percent in the same time period.

Although some private school providers and parents said the increase in enrollment could be attributed to the implementation of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test and cuts to public education programs, Charles Evans, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Association of Non-Public Schools (TANS), said the growth is a longtime trend, extending back at least a decade in the RM 620 and US 183 corridors. He said Northwest Austin generally has strong public schools, so parents are not enrolling their children in private schools because of a lack of academic rigor. Rather, they are transferring their children to faith-based private schools because the curriculum and atmosphere better align with their beliefs or to secular private schools that have strong reputations and a high emphasis on college placement.

Growing in numbers

Because private schools are not legally required to register with the state or report enrollment numbers, it is difficult to pin down how many private schools are in Austin and how many children attend those schools.

However, according to Private School Review, a website that tracks national data on private schools, the Austin area has an estimated 184 private early childhood centers and schools and more than 31,000 students attending those schools. More than 166,500 children attend public school in Travis County, according to 2010 estimates by the American Community Survey, the latest data available.

Brandee Davis, founder of Austin City Kids, a school placement consulting firm that helps parents compare public, private and charter school options, said she has heard from many private schools citywide about enrollment increasing about 10 percent to 20 percent in the past couple of years.

"The very first indicator was more participation at the open house events and [parents] doing tours of the schools, which translated to an increase in enrollment," she said.

Faith-based private schools

Shannon Ficklin, director of admissions at Hill Country Christian School on RM 620, said the school's enrollment grew by 9 percent to 511 students in the 2011–12 school year compared with the prior school year. She said enrollment is projected to jump another 8 percent or so to 550 students this year, and the school will be adding new classrooms.

The Catholic Schools Diocese of Austin, which has 10 schools in the city, also reported an increase in demand.

"The fact that [St. Dominic Savio, Holy Family and St. Theresa's schools] are near capacity or full and have wait pools at particular grade levels shows the need is increasing for Catholic education," Superintendent Ned Vanders said.

St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School, St. Theresa's and Holy Family Catholic schools, all located near Northwest Austin, have a total enrollment of 1,190 students.

For parent Matt Prewett, the decision to remove his son from Leander ISD and enroll him at Summit Christian Academy came down to what he perceived as the district's focus on the lowest-performing students while not challenging the high-performing children.

Despite recent growth in the private school sector, Prewett said finding an alternative in the Northwest Austin and Cedar Park areas proved more difficult because there are fewer options than in Central and East Austin.

"The [education] system works a lot better when parents have options," he said.

Last year, Prewett formed Texas Parents Union to serve as a resource for parents for state-level issues related to expanding educational options for children.

Secular private schools

Many private schools in the northwest region are affiliated with a church or religious organization, but the secular private school sector is also seeing growth spurts as parents seek out niche schools.

Austin International School, which relocated in June to the former New Life Church building on Adelphi Lane, tripled its space because of growing demand. Director Christophe Bonnet said enrollment in the 2012–13 school year would be about 200 students, a 20 percent increase from the prior year. He said AIS plans to open a middle school in the next couple of years.

Bonnet attributed the growth to school's multicultural atmosphere. The school has native French-speaking students as well as students from more than a dozen countries; 60 percent of the teaching is done in French and the rest is in English and Spanish.

Parent Karen Dale Wolman wanted a secular school that focused on academics and creating an emotionally safe environment. She said she could not find such a school in Northwest Austin, so she decided to open Schoolhouse Academy, which is currently holding summer camps and will officially open in the 2012–13 school year.

"Public schools are not a great cultural fit for all students, especially those who are different," she said.

Schoolhouse Academy, located on Research Boulevard at Lake Creek Parkway, will have classes for kindergarten, first grade and second grade, and will add a grade per year. Wolman said she expects to have about six to eight students per class with first and second grades combined in the first year.

Looking to legislation

Potential legislative changes to how private schools get funding could further growth, Evans said. TANS' is working on getting a law passed that provides additional tax credits to corporations that contribute to educational scholarships for private schools.

As of now, the only way a corporation can contribute to a private school is through direct donations. If the new law passes, it would create a network of scholarship organizations that would dole out the scholarships.

"It's a great way for the state to support private schools without using state funds," Evans said.

By Amy Denney

Managing Editor, Austin metro

Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and later senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition as well as covering transportation in the Austin metro. She is now managing editor for the 10 publications in the Central Texas area from Georgetown to New Braunfels.



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