Traverse City’s Private School: ‘Doing Great’

The recession and emergence of publicly funded alternatives have not diminished area demand for private education. Instead, Traverse City’s five private schools report waitlists and growing student populations, with little marketing on their part.

Whether it’s faith-based education, developmental learning, or a combination of both, those who run them say that private schools are here to stay.

THE CHILDREN’S HOUSE, AN INDEPENDENT MONTESSORI SCHOOL

Established: 1984
# of students: 234
Program: Infant through eighth grade
Student/teacher ratio: 3:1 infant; 4:1 toddler; 6:1 elementary
Staff: 43 employees total; 12 head teachers
Tuition (elementary): $10,000
Annual tuition increase: About three percent
Amount of students using financial assistance: 42 percent

Waitlists and a growing middle school program are keeping Michele Shane, The Children’s House head of school, busier than ever. But it’s a “good kind of busy,” said Shane, who recently announced the addition of 7th and 8th grades to the school’s upper elementary.

The add-on was a long held dream of Shane’s, whose board told her, “‘You can do this, but we don’t have the cash reserves,’” she said. “So, we got people to commit and had people donate privately.”

Shane said the extension through 8th grade is in answer to parent demand, but also allows students to make only one switch – to high school – when they age out of the school.

Since most families enroll their children at a very young age, retention and word of mouth have been the biggest determinants of growth, Shane said.

“Most students start here in diapers, they get in this community, and then they just stay,” she said.

She also attributes a growing awareness about education alternatives in Traverse City.

“People are questioning the focus of public education, where testing equals funding,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting standards, but people are more disheartened and are looking for alternatives.”

GTACS
GRAND TRAVERSE AREA CATHOLIC SCHOOLS

Established: 1877
# of students: 1,100
Program: Preschool through high school
Student/teacher ratio: K-8, 19:1
Staff: 99 teachers; 50 ancillary staff
Tuition (elementary): $4,658
Annual tuition increase: Three to five percent
Amount of students using financial assistance: 36 percent

Ninety-eight percent of graduating seniors go to college after finishing St. Francis High School. That, and consecutive years as a national Top 50 Catholic high school, have attracted parish and non-parish families alike to the system, which grew two percent last year, said Cathy Nelson, director of marketing and communications for Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools (GTACS).

“Our research tells us that what initially attracts families to our schools is either the desire for academic rigor or a faith-oriented environment,” Nelson said. “Families who choose GTACS are looking for something different.”

To market this difference, GTACS hosts one-hour presentations several times a month that explain the school’s mission, methods and unique approach. Shadow Days, held three times a year, allow prospective students to experience a day in the life of a GTACS student.

But it’s word of mouth “by far” that gets new families in the door, Nelson said.

“Current and past families regard our schools so highly that they want their friends’ children to also benefit from that experience,” she said. “It’s both the ultimate compliment and the ultimate responsibility – to continually earn that level of loyalty.”

THE PATHFINDER SCHOOL

Established: 1972
# of students: 105
Program: Preschool through eighth grade
Student/teacher ratio: 7:1
Staff: 22 total
Tuition (elementary): $9,450
Annual tuition increase: Three to five percent
Amount of students using financial assistance: 60 percent

It’s hard to see from M-22, but The Pathfinder School’s 22-acre wooded campus is a big draw for area families seeking individualized instruction.

The campus, built on a Cedar Lake historic estate, is made up of “little cabins in the woods,” said Rob Hansen, Pathfinder’s head of school.

“When you know the student, you can challenge them in a personal way,” he said. Although enrollment grew 15 percent last year, with another such growth spurt expected this coming fall, Hansen said that the 2008 recession did affect the school for some time.

“This is an entrepreneurial region,” he said. “It’s harder to recover.”

To help families, Hansen instituted a “very aggressive” tuition assistance program. “It’s more aggressive than most: up to 46 percent,” he said. “But it’s to ensure that our population represents the Grand Traverse area and the community we serve.”

Although on the smaller side, Pathfinder serves a niche of student that gives parents a “distinct choice,” Hansen said.

“A lot of people come here after being in other settings,” he said. “Our independence allows us to craft a curriculum that contrasts the popular mandates that affect public education.”

TRAVERSE CITY CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS

Established: 1979
# of students: 225
Student/teacher ratio: 12:1, but differs from grade to grade
Staff: 25 full-time
Tuition (elementary): $3,500
Annual tuition increase: Three percent
Amount of students using financial assistance: About 60 percent

Traverse City Christian Schools also report growing enrollment for this coming year.

“It’s going fabulously,” said Tony Clymer, the school’s administrator. “Parents are discovering we are a great resource in the community.”

Clymer said if the school didn’t charge tuition, he would “have a waiting list out the door.”

“We love God and say the Pledge of Allegiance every day,” he said. “It resonates with the parents.”

He acknowledged that the 2008 recession increased requests for tuition assistance and that 50 to 60 percent of the students receive aid of some sort. And in spite of charging less than half of what other private schools do, Clymer said the school continues to grow because of two things: a lean operation and heavy reliance on parent volunteers.

“Our parent involvement is key: They are monitors, cooks, fundraisers and ambassadors,” he said. “They are our most effective agents of new and continued enrollment.”

TRINITY LUTHERAN SCHOOL

Established: 1950
# of students: 123
Student/teacher ratio: N/A
Tuition (elementary): $1,800 church member; $3,800 non-member
Annual tuition increase: None
Amount of students using financial assistance: Less than 40 percent

Like his colleagues at some of the other Traverse City private schools, Dr. Calvin F. Schmucker says that the recession had little or no effect on enrollment or numbers at Trinity Lutheran School.

In fact, “we’ve been pretty steady,” said Schmucker about the school, whose tuition is augmented 55 percent by its congregation.

Although word of mouth has traditionally been Trinity Lutheran’s strongest marketing tool, Schmucker said the school’s website has also been important for potential families.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” he said. “People can see everything there.” Schmucker, a 45-year education veteran, retired in 2007 but came back to Trinity Lutheran part time recently. He will stay another year while the board deliberates a replacement.

Meanwhile, another recent deliberation by the board may incite mixed feelings from students and parents: The school will make up its six extra snow days, meaning school isn’t out until June 19.

“We decided we needed to provide the education to the students,” he said. “That means making up the time we missed.”

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