Converting interest into results: Private schools savor enrollment boost during Covid-19 by Paul Lane
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Heads of local private schools say interest has peaked since Covid-19, but the true impact on enrollment may take some time to be calculated.
Like all schools across the region, Western New York's private secondary schools converted to online-only education in March and stayed that way to finish the 2019-20 school year. The bulk of the 2020-21 enrollment had taken place by then, but interest nonetheless spiked over the summer when most private schools committed to daily in-person instruction that public schools could not or would not provide. More than 60% of the region's schools reported an increase in applications for the current year.
"We went to a wait list and had to close it almost immediately," said Leslie Garcia, director of advancement at Nichols School.
The fact that daily instruction requires more space in classrooms means the surge of interest isn't reflected in current enrollment totals. Only three of the 19 schools that reported data to Business First in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years had enrollment increase this year.
At Park School of Buffalo, for example, enrollment manager Marnie Cerrato said enrollment is intentionally down, despite a surge in first-year students, in order to keep class size down. At Mount St. Mary Academy, assistant principal Jennifer Pitz-Jones said most students who were added to the waiting list stayed there.
Notre Dame High School in Batavia had waiting lists in the 10th and 11th grades, principal Wade Bianco said. There was also a waiting list for a newly added eighth grade. Seventh- and eighth-grade enrollment was expected to total 40, but the new grades saw 60 students accepted.
"It couldn't have gone better. We've had great interest. That just shows the kind of programs we have," he said. "We kicked butt."
Enrollment administrators said they see opportunity for future growth. At Nardin Academy, the school's Montessori and K-8 programs saw a surge of interest. Nardin vice president of enrollment management, said enrollment in those programs also happens later than it does for the high school.
"Our phone rang off the hook. We saw one of the busiest enrollment seasons we've ever seen," said Miles-Kania, who has been at Nardin for six years. "We have benefitted from having good technology plans (for remote learning). We continued to nurture that as the pandemic unfolded. The word of mouth was strong once summer came that we were going to five days a week."
Utilizing a "safe and conservative approach," Nardin has maintained daily in-person instruction as well as extracurriculars, when advisable to do so. Nardin had students come back early in August to bank healthy days in the event of a protracted closure, Miles-Kania said.
So far, that hasn't happened. Though the future isn't known, administrators are trying to plan for a wider reopening, when public schools might be able to fully welcome back their students. Expanded virtual open houses featuring live narration were added to Buffalo Seminary, according to communications director Erin Kelly, and the school's entrance and scholarship exams took place online.
Those are among the moves many local schools are considering making permanent to ease the admissions process. But more planning is needed. Acknowledging that Nardin "is just not there yet," Miles-Kania said administrators are looking at how to capitalize on the increased interest, both in new high school students and in younger students who might stick around through high school.
Nichols was able to accommodate 20 more students this year than last year. Interest has remained high for next year, Garcia said, with officials working on ways to meet future students' needs.
"The word is out that we're doing something right," she said. "We're seeing the same numbers moving forward, so we're pretty pleased with the response."
Getting that word out has proven to be the most effective form of advertising, Miles-Kania said.
"We've had to reimagine certain things, but delivery has not been negatively impacted," she said. "We have families coming from Fredonia, Ellicottville. Their neighbors are having a far different experience than our Nardin families are. Families are wringing their hands looking for a solution."