Hawaii private schools feeling economic pressures
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
Private schools statewide are seeing enrollments decline and student financial need increase as families struggle in the economic downturn — factors that contributed to two schools' decisions to close when the year ends in June.
Holy Trinity School in Kuli'ou'ou, which opened in 1959, will shut down after the last day of school, June 7, after a years-long battle to make ends meet that worsened with the global financial crisis. The announcement came on the heels of word last month that Word of Life Academy in Kaka'ako will close.
Private school administrators and others yesterday couldn't recall ever seeing two schools with such strong academics and solid histories in the state shutter because of tough economic times, which they said was a testament to just how many families are struggling — and by how much.
They also warned that other schools could follow.
"It's basically an economic fallout situation," said David Grossman, Chaminade University's education division dean. "When people are losing jobs and income, they're pulling their kids out. Communities never want their children's schools to close, but at some point you reach a tipping point."
Grossman and others pointed out that not all schools are struggling, and some are faring well. The schools most at risk, they said, are those with small enrollments and little or no financial cushion to rely on when revenues shrink.
Private schools account for about 18 percent of school enrollment in the state. Enrollment at private schools statewide decreased by about 2 percent this year, to 38,524 students. Neighbor Island schools saw more sizable declines — with an overall 4 percent decrease in enrollment, for a total of 8,257 students, according to the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.
Catholic schools on O'ahu saw a 3 percent decrease in enrollment this year.
Several small- and mid-sized private schools yesterday said they are struggling to tackle enrollment declines and increases in financial aid requests. But many are also optimistic, with signs the economy is slowly recovering and with more parents eying private schools because of public school furloughs.
"It really hit us last year," said Mark Gallagher, principal of Kaimuki Christian School, which has 300 students in preschool to eighth grade. He added, "It hasn't gotten worse this year. It hasn't gotten better, either."
Gallagher said he's thankful that the school was able to stash away some savings during better years, which meant it was more prepared to get through tougher times. The school, which charges about $8,500 a year for tuition, has seen big declines in its preschool enrollment, but steadier demand in its elementary and middle school. Altogether, it has 301 students, he said.
Gallagher said the school put off big expenses, such as new software and merit raises for teachers, when it was clear students would need more financial aid. He said the school has increased its scholarships by 35 percent this year.
Sacred Hearts Academy in Kaimuki is a much larger school, with 1,050 students in kindergarten to 12th grade, but has had to seek out new grants and other funding to meet increased financial aid needs.
"What we're trying to do as a school is just be very mindful of the hard time that all of our parents are having," said Betty White, head of Sacred Hearts, an all-girls school.
White said about 30 percent of students will get financial aid next year.
That's up from about 25 percent in normal years.
Yesterday at Holy Trinity School, students and parents were weighing options for next school year. The school, with just 70 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has seen enrollment shrink over the past few years. Tuition at the school is $6,900 a year.
Father Gary Secor, pastor of Holy Trinity Church, said the declining enrollment — coupled with increased financial aid needs from parents — made it impossible to keep the school open for another year.
The school has about $500,000 in debt, including a mortgage on a home that the parish owns and a loan from the diocese.
"There's a limit to how much we can do," Secor said.
The closure, he added, was a last resort — decided on after the school slashed expenses, froze salaries and tried to search elsewhere for more funding.
The school has 12 employees, all of whom will be laid off.
Secor said the parish is trying to help staff search for employment elsewhere, as it also tries to help students get into other schools.
Marilyn Young, whose 11-year-old attends the school, was scrambling yesterday to figure out where her son will go and said she's worried about how much more she'll have to spend on tuition. The Safeway deli manager, who lives in Hawai'i Kai, said Holy Trinity provided her son with small classes and a caring environment where he was able to shine. Her daughter also attended the school.
"The teachers care about the kids," Young said.
She said her son's class has six children.
"It's like a very caring family," she said.
Jennifer Hopley, whose 13-year-old attends the school, started to cry yesterday when she talked about Holy Trinity's closure. She said the school's staff has helped her and her daughter get through three of her husband's Marine deployments to the Middle East.
"This is not a school. They're family," she said.
Hopley's daughter has attended Holy Trinity since third grade.
Holy Trinity language arts teacher Shelly Mecum said the school, though small, has a rigorous curriculum and was recently named one of the country's 12 Catholic Schools of Tomorrow by Today's Catholic Teacher magazine.
"The school of tomorrow, they're closing today," she said.
SOME BRIGHT SPOTS
Word of Holy Trinity's closure comes three weeks after Word of Life Academy in Kaka'ako announced it is shutting down because of shrinking enrollment and declining revenues. The school, with 250 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, will hold its last day June 4.
Despite all the bad news, schools say there are bright spots.
Denise Acklin, the head of school at Ho'aloha Kai Montessori School in Kahala, said a key part of wooing prospective students is making sure to involve parents and the community.
The school opened eight months ago with eight elementary students and now has 20. It also had 12 preschool-age kids.
And it had to start up a preschool waiting list.
Tuition at the school is $8,700.
"We've actually seen and had steady growth," Acklin said. "We took a tremendous leap of faith ... in a really slumped economy. But we felt very fortunate about what our mission is and we're looking to continue to grow."