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Students leave St. Monica Catholic High School on Wednesday. Enrollment at many private schools is steady despite the ailing economy, however many are seeing requests for financial aid increase. (photo by Byron Kennerly)

CITYWIDE As the economy forces locals to save money — cutting vacations and frivolous expenditures — one area that has remained relatively unaffected by the downturn is private education.

In a city packed with independent institutions, whether it’s parochial like Saint Anne School or specialized like Crossroads School, the cost of paying tuition has deterred few families.

It’s a reflection of what’s occurring nationally where private schools are reporting a stable enrollment level during unstable economic times.

“It’s not playing out as you might expect,” Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools, said. “Many people expected that the number of students enrolled in independent schools would go down and that has not happened yet.”

One reason is because many non-public schools follow a similar admissions timeline as colleges, from the application deadlines in January to the tuition deposits that are typically due in late spring. That would mean many families already paid a deposit well in advance of the stock market crisis in the fall.

But the future remains to be seen.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District recently released its projected enrollment figures for the 2009-10 academic year, showing levels slightly decreasing. Officials said they believe the economy is playing a part in keeping the enrollment levels relatively stable given the current moratorium on students who don’t reside in either cities, hearing about cases of families who switched this year from private to public schools because the tuition was cost prohibitive.

Yet many Santa Monica private schools report that enrollment has remained roughly the same from the previous year, some even seeing an increase.

Such has been the case for Saint Anne School, a Catholic, K-8 institution that has welcomed more students from other private schools.

“I think in part it’s because we offer what is considered a more affordable alternative private education,” Carol O’Day, the director of marketing and development, said.

The tuition at Saint Anne, which is about $3,000 annually per family, is much lower than other schools in Santa Monica that can charge more than $20,000.

The school, which has nearly 200 students, added three families this month. While it has brought in more students, Saint Anne, like many other Catholic institutions, has seen enrollment decline as a whole over the past several years.

One of the more extreme cases of increased enrollment can be seen at PS #1 which has seen a 33 percent jump in new kindergarten students this year.

“They’re greater than we have seen in 10 years,” Deirdre Gainor, the outreach coordinator, said.

The K-6 school, which has approximately 200 students, charges more than $20,000 for tuition and has actually seen an increase in demand for financial aid.

Several schools report that more families are requesting scholarship information or assistance paying for tuition, putting some institutions that have seen a drop in donations in a difficult situation of turning them away.

Thom Gasper, the principal at St. Monica Catholic High School, said the most requests are coming from middle-class families.

Enrollment overall at the high school has remained stable, losing only a few families who have cited finances as their reason for departure.

The tuition at the school is $6,700 for students who attend a parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and $7,300 a year for those who do not. The reason why Catholic families pay less is because a percentage of donations to their respective parishes are funneled back to the schools in the Archdiocese.

“Our challenge is more of how we can keep our tuition low, respond to the need for more financial aid when … the endowment is not bearing interest, and how to keep reaching out to people to support when our return in the investment is not going to do it alone anymore,” Gasper said.

Some preschools have felt the impact from the economy.

The student population at Pilgrim Lutheran Church’s preschool has long been socio-economically diverse, with both low and high-income families. But the number of students in the former income group have gone down substantially this year.

Tuition at the school averages about $6 an hour.

“It’s money well spent but nonetheless money spent,” Shelley McDermott, the school administrator, said. “I wish we had an endowment or scholarship fund to help people to pay this tuition.”

While there might be families leaving private education for public schools, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District does boast one of the strongest academic programs in the state.

“I believe that when we look at the quality of our schools, we have to compete with the private schools and I think we’re very successful in that,” Mike Matthews, the assistant superintendent for human resources, said. “When financial times get a little tighter, it’s easy for parents to make a decision.

“We’re a great option without any drop off in quality.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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