October 2, 2008
Private Schools Band Together to Draw Pupils ; Goal is to Leverage Woes at Public Schools.
By JANESE HEAVIN
Private schools in Columbia are teaming up and pooling their resources in hopes of becoming more competitive with Columbia Public Schools.
About a dozen private and religious schools formed a network this summer and met again last month to talk, in part, about coordinating marketing and recruiting efforts.
"It's really important because so much attention is given to the public schools," said Karen Shryock, the Columbia Independent School admissions director who formed the network. "People interested in school choice might not seek it out. We want to at least present the idea that parents do have a choice here and there are some options."
Creation of the network comes at a time when Columbia Public Schools is dealing with budget shortfalls, increased class sizes, an unpopular math curriculum and a leadership transition. The timing is coincidental, Shryock said, but she acknowledged that private schools are benefiting from issues that plague public schools.
"There are more people in Columbia with children looking for options and considering options due to what they're seeing in their classroom: large class sizes, parents feeling their child doesn't get as much attention," Shryock said.
And the investigative math used in Columbia's public elementary and middle schools - which will be eliminated next year - has also resulted in kids enrolling in private schools. "The primary concern I hear from families evacuating the public school district is frustration with integrated math," said Isaac Keene, director of Heritage Academy. "We've received a lot of students frustrated with the math program in Columbia."
One of the main obstacles keeping families from enrolling in private schools is tuition cost. Although CIS and Heritage Academy have seen enrollment increase despite a shaky economy, Shryock said the network hopes to make parents aware of scholarship and loan opportunities that can make private schooling more affordable. "Investing in education is not going to go up and down like the stock market," Shryock said. "It always provides a return on its investment."
She suspects that at some point members will talk about whether to support or advocate for vouchers or tuition tax credits, government programs that pay tuition for low-income children to attend private schools. Keene hopes just having a private school network will create a more competitive educational environment.
"The public schools of Columbia are historically so strong that the community is slow to recognize the legitimacy of private schools," he said. "The more we can do to advocate for the credibility of educational alternatives, the more competitive we're going to be in the market. That's also going to challenge our public schools to do a better job because they're as interested in retaining students as we are in attracting those students."
Columbia Public Schools is in a position to compete, interim Superintendent Jim Ritter said. "We have a very strong public school program that gives parents a good option," he said. "People view our school district as being very strong, and as a result, they don't feel the need to spend money and send their children to private or parochial schools."
Ritter estimates about 1,400 children living in Columbia Public Schools' boundaries attend private schools, and he suspects many do so for religious reasons.
"Of course, public schools can never compete in that way," he said. "There's lots of choice, but only a small percentage have actually chosen to send their children to private schools because they see Columbia Public Schools as providing high- quality education."
Private schools compete among one another for students, too, but Keene said it's more beneficial for them to work together. "A good analogy is in nature when you see a lot of little birds who otherwise might be fighting among one another around a bird feeder," he said. "Instead, they all might go up against a crow that has enough substance to eradicate all of them."
Reach Janese Heavin at (573) 815-1705 or [email protected]
Originally published by JANESE HEAVIN of the Tribune's staff.
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