Private schools work to keep numbers up

ADDISON COUNTY — While some Addison County school districts are considering merging resources and governance in the face of declining enrollment, some of the area’s independent, private schools are also having to adjust their budgets and business plans to remain successful.
A survey of six of the county’s independent schools revealed that while some remain at full capacity, others are seeing student numbers drop and are compensating by either trimming staff and/or grade levels, or are adding new offerings to woo prospective families.
“Our numbers certainly have gone down during the past three years,” said Poppy Rees, chief administrator of the Middlebury-based Bridge School, established in 1980.
The Bridge School currently has 48 students enrolled in its K-6 program. That compares to an enrollment in the mid-50s last year and a peak of 67 students during the early-1990s. Given current demographics and graduations, Bridge School officials are anticipating enrollment in the mid-to upper-30s this coming fall, according Grace McGrath, chairwoman of the school board.
“We will be smaller, but still very viable,” McGrath stressed.
School officials will be making some adjustments to weather a low enrollment trend that they believe with smooth out during the next few years. Rees’s position will be eliminated at the end of this academic year, and the school will aggressively fundraise, as it always does.
“We really have done lots of short-term and long-term budget planning, so we expect the school to continue for many years to come,” McGrath said.
Rees is disappointed she won’t have a job at the Bridge School next year, but wishes her colleagues and students well for the future, and is confident in the school’s quality. She is concerned, however, that there might be too much competition on Addison County’s educational landscape.
“Having a lot of choices is good, but we are perhaps too small a school community to have so many choices,” Rees said.
Linda Larocque is chief administrator of the Champlain Valley Christian School (CVCS) in Vergennes. Larocque acknowledged the school has seen declining enrollment during the past few years, and she cited the tough economy as a big factor. Folks who enroll their children in private schools pay tuition as well as property taxes to support public schools.
In an effort to tighten its operation, CVCS stopped offering a high school program last year and is now focusing on grades K-8. Current enrollment is 33 students. The school, established in 1974, accommodated almost 80 students around a decade ago, according to Larocque.
The CVCS is working proactively to boost its numbers. Next year it will open what will be known as the Cornerstone Preschool that could produce a steady stream of new enrollees.
“(Preschools) have been a life saver for many Christian schools,” Larocque said.
Indeed, things have been looking up at St. Mary’s Catholic Elementary School in Middlebury — in large part as a result of the preschool established 11 years ago, noted Principal Angela C. Pohlen.
“We have been putting a lot of effort into (the preschool), and it is paying off for us,” she said. “It’s become a feeder program.”
But she also credited a strong educational program and a thirst for faith-based learning in the community as factors that have helped sustain the school, which now serves 83 students. She expects enrollment to hold steady or increase this fall, in spite of a fairly large graduating 6th grade.
“Our enrollment has grown during the past two years,” Pohlen said.
She added she has seen “a little bit” of a population surge at the day care/preschool level that could bode well for independent schools in the near future.
“If they manage to stay viable during the next couple of years, we could see an upswing,” Pohlen said.
That would be a welcome happening, though regional demographic forecasts paint a gloomier picture.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics data covering 2005-2012, the school-age population is expected to increase in 37 states, though decreases are expected in New England. Specifically, Vermont’s K-12 enrollment is pegged to decrease by 11.7 percent. Reasons for declining enrollments in New England include young graduates looking for employment opportunities to the west and south, and an aging population that will produce fewer births.
Declining enrollment has unfortunately taken a fatal toll on the Middlebury-based Gailer School, which will cease operating later this spring. The school, established in 1989, once served more than 80 students in grades 7-12. That number is down to 13 this year.
Still, some local independent schools appear to be thriving in spite of the demographic trends. Take, for instance, the Aurora School.
“Currently, we are full with a waiting list for grades 3 through 6,” said Susan Vigne, director and principal of the Middlebury-based school. The elementary school can accommodate 30 students, and expects to stay at that cap for at least the near future.
Vigne said the Aurora School has proved to be the right fit for children looking for an alternative to public schools. The Aurora School has differentiated itself by offering a yearlong, thematic curriculum. The theme this year is “Around the World,” with lessons, field studies, music, art and drama all linked to the geography, science, math and cultural diversity of the Earth and the solar system.
“We look at things in a comprehensive way,” Vigne said of the school, now in its 16th year.
Declining enrollment has also not been a problem at the North Branch School in Ripton, serving students in grades 7, 8 and 9. The school, with a capacity of 27, accepts 10 new students each year and typically has to turn away five or six applicants.
“Since our second year, we have had more applicants than spots,” said head teacher Tal Birdsey. “It is probably the most difficult spot we find ourselves in.”
But North Branch School leaders are adamant about keeping the school at 27 students, in order to ensure a good student-teacher ratio.
Like the Aurora School, the North Branch School has proven to be the right fit for many students.
“We have been really lucky,” Birdsey said.
Leaders of the Red Cedar School in Bristol are also feeling lucky. The school has been able to comfortably maintain enrollment in the mid-30s for the past few years. School Director Jacquie Werner-Gavrin credited Red Cedar’s strong outdoor education, field studies, arts program and dedication to core academics as strong enrollment magnets. The K-8 school, in its 23rd year, also draws around 30 percent of its students from Chittenden County and provides transportation to those enrollees.
“We feel very fortunate,” Werner-Gavrin said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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