Parents struggle to afford private schools - East Valley Tribune: News

Parents struggle to afford private schools

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Posted: Saturday, April 25, 2009 3:20 pm | Updated: 2:12 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Cheryl McAlister has talked to the parents, seen their faces and knows they’re struggling. Enrollment at Queen Creek’s Calvary Christian School started at 120 students this year. It’s now at about 100.

Cheryl McAlister has talked to the parents, seen their faces and knows they’re struggling.

Enrollment at Queen Creek’s Calvary Christian School started at 120 students this year.

It’s now at about 100.

“A lot (have left) because of people losing their jobs,” McAlister said. “We’re being flexible about families paying tuition when they lose a job ... We’re not kicking people out just because they lose a job and can’t afford it. We’re trying to maintain our families.”

McAlister leads a 14-member staff at the private preschool through sixth-grade school tucked in Queen Creek.

Her words are echoed by other private school leaders and tax credit organizations who are hearing from more families struggling to meet tuition.

Denise Monroe, principal at Mesa’s Redeemer Christian School, said to help families the school has frozen tuition rates for next school year.

As far as families leaving, “We have that a lot. As a private school, it’s all tuition-based. We get that anyway sometimes. Is it more this year than any other year? A little bit,” Monroe said.

ChamBria Henderson, executive director of Arizona Scholarship Fund, said her organization is getting more and more inquiries about scholarships. The Arizona Scholarship Fund is the third-largest private-tuition tax credit organization in the state and the largest one not tied solely to religious schools. In Arizona, taxpayers can donate up to $1,000 per married couple to an organization that then offers financial assistance to families in private schools.

“What we’re hearing from our families is they’re doing everything they can during these difficult times to keep their children in the private schools because the private schools they’ve got their kids enrolled in are meeting the basic needs for their children,” said Henderson.

Monroe and McAlister said their schools are also making cost-saving measures. A plan to add seventh grade at Calvary Christian Academy next year has been put on hold. Salaries have been frozen at Redeemer Christian and the school is putting off purchasing curriculum for some classes.

It takes some sacrifices on both sides to afford the private schools, the leaders say, and even more from families who may face wage losses. But even so, families continue to make inquiries about the private schools — with many telling private school leaders it’s because they want more personal attention for their children and fear that won’t happen as public schools make cutbacks.

CUTTING BACK

Giving up restaurants, purchases and major family vacations, and seeking out the help of scholarships from tax credit organizations for private tuition, the Johnson family of Queen Creek has managed to keep their two children at Calvary Christian.

It’s not easy, Amanda Johnson said, but it’s worth it.

Their son, Garret , 7, started at Calvary when he was in preschool. Their daughter, Sarah, 6, is in kindergarten.

“For our family stuff, we don’t take a lot of family vacations, we don’t go out,” Johnson said.

To help, Johnson, a certified teacher, works part-time from home as an online instructor. It allows her to be home when she is needed (her son was out sick one day this week) and it allows the family to have the funds needed to pay for private school.

“My son is a quieter, a more internal type of child,” she said. “I am a teacher. Before I had kids I (taught) in a public school and now I teach online for public schools. I knew he would fall through the cracks because he’s pretty well behaved and he’s pretty smart to do what he needs to do ... I wanted him to have the individual attention, the small group setting.”

It’s not a permanent decision to keep the kids in private school, but what the Johnsons felt is necessary now for their kids.

Every Sunday when the family attends church service at the nearby Higley Performing Arts Center on the Higley High School campus, Johnson tells her son, “This will be your high school.”

She’s eyeing public high school for the more comprehensive programming she believes is offered.

“I don’t oppose the public schools. It’s not that I don’t want them in there. I just want them to get the core development,” and individual attention while they’re young, she said.

“I imagine we’ll be in the public school for high school and be a part of the acting club or drama or whatever.”

TOUGH CHOICES

Jim Desmarchais is seeing both sides of the economic and education picture from a unique viewpoint.

Desmarchais is principal at Frost Elementary School, a Mesa Unified School District campus that rests in Chandler.

Come July 1, he will take over as administrator for Gilbert Christian School — currently called Surrey Garden — a kindergarten through 12th-grade campus that’s situated in the Gilbert community of Agritopia.

“It’s frustrating. There are the two sides. On the private school side, for those parents who were affected by the crisis it’s not just financially feasible (to afford private school),” Desmarchais said. “You’re going to lose some of them. One of the positives is the tax credit. Some parents can find enough people to support their child’s education using the tax credit.”

But the other side is what’s happening in public schools, Desmarchais said. Thousands of teachers in Arizona have received pink slips for next school year. Mesa Unified and Gilbert Unified issued more than 200 each. District leaders have said they hope to hire some back as they know more about federal stimulus money.

“There’s also a fear with the public schools,” Desmarchais said. “All they hear is teachers losing positions, teachers losing jobs, less funding. They think, 'What’s this going to look like for my child’s education?’”

Desmarchais said the Johnsons’ story is similar to what he’s hearing from Gilbert Christian families.

“In the community I’m dealing with some parents will sacrifice vacations and other luxuries for (a) child’s education,” he said. “When you look at public schools and classes going up ... our classes’ sizes are 18, and kindergarten is 12. When they see things with such a disparity it’s hard for them to leave that environment.”

Desmarchais said Gilbert Christian/Surrey Garden has not seen a large number of families exiting at this point. In fact, the school’s board of directors is developing plans to open a separate high school campus because land and construction costs have come down.

And even in tough times, parents are seeking out what they feel is best for their children.

“We are braced for what the economy may do,” Redeemer’s Monroe said. “What we’ve seen is a lot of interest from public-school families that want a private education because of the potential classroom (sizes) that parents anticipate. This is the last straw for some parents.”

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