Public, Private, Charter?

REGION – With the economic decline of the past few years, you might expect private schools to show a decline in enrollment, and public schools to show a corresponding increase.

And you might be wrong.

While some private schools are showing a decline, others show an increase or steady numbers. Meanwhile, charter schools are holding steady or increasing, while the region's largest school system shows a small but steady decrease over the last four years, though the rate of that decrease has slowed.

In other words, if you're looking for any kind of overall trend to explain all the comings and goings of student enrollment, you're out of luck.

For example, the enrollment figures at Interlochen Arts Academy consistently run around capacity. But with seven different majors, some areas might have waiting lists while others might be actively recruiting students.

"I've been here five years, and it's so unpredictable," says Chris Hintz, national marketing and communications manager for Interlochen. "We might have four or five years we turn flutists away, then in year six realize we need flutists," says Hintz.

At Woodland School, its size is easy to predict. "We have a cap of 200 students," says Head of School Nathan Tarsa. "That's a good size for us." Tarsa says the school could expand to accept more students, but that would mean "becoming something we don't want to be."

As one of the area's charter schools, Woodland doesn't charge tuition, and it uses its small size as a strength when competing against larger schools that might boast more sports or academic offerings. Parent Renee Cheung says she decided on Woodland because its restrained size gives the students more one-on-one experience with the teachers.

"Kids have the same teachers for three years, and I like the smaller size," she says. "It's a quaint, small school, and the education is very hands-on. For example, in science they do a lot of nature studies. It's real-life experience."

The Children's House, the Montessori school on Long Lake Road that serves kids from three months old to 6th grade, says it has reached capacity at the upper elementary level. "We're completely full – that's new for us," says Michele Shane, head of school.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the Children's House is still enrolling students. "That's where we have the most classrooms," she explains. "It's picking up but we're not yet at capacity."

Patti Shaffran, administrative assistant at St. Mary's of Lake Leelanau, says the numbers there are reflective of the greater trend throughout the region, which showed an increase followed by a decrease.

"Everybody had a huge bubble" of students, she says. "Now they are graduating out. This year we are graduating our last big class."

Of course, big is relative. At St. Mary's, that big class is comprised of 21 students, with a total enrollment of 201. At Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, the total enrollment of students K-12 is 990. That's up 27 students from last year.

Craig O'Connor, development director at Traverse City Christian, points to the decline in the student-age population between the 2000 census and the 2010 one, where Grand Traverse County alone saw a decrease of over 3000 children under the age of 18.

That drop can be seen in part at the big kid on the block: Traverse City Area Public Schools this year has 10,070 students enrolled. That's a decline of over 500 from the highwater mark of three years ago, when the district was at 10,578. The district took the biggest hit in 08/09, dropping 333 students; the last two years have seen less than a 1 percent decline.

What to make of it? While economic stress can theoretically make a free public education more attractive, the stresses on public education can have the opposite effect. "We're seeing a rise in interest from students whose arts programs at their [current] school, wherever that might be, are seeing cuts," says Hintz.

At Traverse City Christian school, O'Connor says that school's dip in numbers is a reflection of both the bubble and the economy. "We had a slight drop due to a large graduating class in 08/09, plus the effects of downturn in the economy," he says. Their largest enrollment was in 08, with 215 students, which dropped to 205 last year, then 207 this year.

"We're trending above where we were at this same time last year," he says. "We're adding students."

Things are fairly steady numbers-wise at Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools. Enrollment this year was 990, up from last years's 963, down just slightly from the previous year's 995. Projections for next year are to continue the upward trend, which officials ascribe to the upward swing in the economy. They believe better times means more people in the region, and a corresponding uptick in student enrollment.

"We're getting more calls from people who have an opportunity to move here," says Cindy Weber, development director for the school. "To me, that's a good sign."

The Pathfinder School is an independent, private pre-K-8 school on West Bay. It was formerly affiliated with Interlochen Arts Academy, but when that didn't work out the two separated, which caused concern regarding the school's continued viability.

"Pathfinder's future was highly uncertain four years ago," says Karl Sikkenga, head of school.

But that's no longer the case, as the last couple years have seen an increase in its enrollment.

"We've had classroom visits every day. We're on track to open next year (with) more than last year," says Sikkenga. "But we don't want to get too much bigger – then we wouldn't be who we are."

Woodland Academy, Grand Traverse Academy, and Traverse City College Prep Academy are all charter schools, meaning that like Traverse City Area Public Schools there is no tuition charged. Grand Traverse Area Catholic School, Lake Leelanau St. Mary's, and Traverse City Christian are faith-based private schools, while Pathfinder, The Children's House and Interlochen are all private schools; they all charge tuition, though they take pains to point out that scholarships and financial aid are readily available. BN