Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Bee file, 2012

Kindergarten students at Fortune Charter School in Sacramento.

Charter school enrollment climbs in Sacramento region as private schools lose students

Published: Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 - 5:49 pm

Dozens of private schools across the Sacramento region closed their doors in recent years as enrollment plummeted and students transferred to public schools.

Statewide, private school officials point to a birthrate decline and migration out of California. But they also cite fierce competition from public charter schools as the economy sputtered and families sought cheaper education options.

Between 2007 and 2013, private school enrollment in the four-county region that includes Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and Yolo dropped by 11 percent, according to the California Department of Education. Over the same period, charter school enrollment shot up 67 percent.

In many cases, families saw high-achieving charter schools as a viable alternative based on performance and cost.

"Charters are definitely becoming way more popular," said Laura Daggett, whose two children will attend Harvest Ridge Placer Academy in Rocklin. "You are getting a private school education for free. Why pay eight grand when you don't have to?"

Daggett said she tried public schools, but was dissatisfied and decided to home-school her children before enrolling them in charter schools. For her family, she said, the cost of private schools was too high.

Harvest Ridge Placer Academy, one of the region's newest charter campuses, opens Tuesday in Rocklin, at the former site of a private elementary – Phoenix School – that closed. The kindergarten through seventh-grade school will limit class size to 24 students and emphasize academic fundamentals.

Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, said public charter schools are comparable to private schools in many ways, with "smaller class sizes, a more focused mission, greater parental input."

"It's charter schools that are really imitating private schools," Reynolds said. "Private schools are always trying to step their game up, if they aren't the best they can be. We're just keeping at it."

Reynolds noted that the majority of private schools offer religious education, an area where public charter schools can't compete.

The shift from private to charter has been most noticeable in "highly urban" districts, according to Richard Buddin, an economist and education analyst. In research published last year, he found that 32 percent of students at elementary charter schools came from private schools in urban areas, compared with 8 percent from all districts.

A small group of teachers who tried to open a private school in Rocklin this month learned how difficult it can be to compete with public charter schools.

After taking deposits from interested families, the teachers opted to abandon their Hawthorne Academy of Arts and Sciences when they ultimately had too little demand, said Adam Hahn, board chairman for the proposed campus.

"It was obviously extremely disappointing," he said. "The vision was there to satisfy what we perceive to be a community need, but it has gotten competitive."

Hahn said competition came primarily from public charter schools. The $700 monthly tuition for Hawthorne Academy was "a hard pill to swallow in this economy," Hahn said. "We underestimated the options."

Like other public schools, charter schools vary widely in quality and academic performance. But in recent years, admission at some of the higher performing charters has become extremely competitive.

Boasting one of the highest Academic Performance Index scores in the Natomas Unified School District, Natomas Charter School has waiting lists for kindergarten, sixth, seventh and ninth grades in some academies, said executive director Ting Sun.

The school has 1,400 students in five academies spread across three campuses. Students must apply for admission and maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average in most of its programs.

"Most charter schools are smaller, with smaller learning environments," Sun said. "People tend to know each other, and parents tend to be very involved. The same characteristics (as private schools)."

Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association, downplayed the extent to which students from private schools – particularly parochial schools – enroll at charters. Charters "offer great options that draw kids from wherever," he said.

Still, competition from charters was among the reasons cited by officials with Sacramento's Catholic Diocese when discussing enrollment drops. The diocese, which encompasses 20 counties, educates more than 40 percent of Sacramento-area private school students.

Enrollment in diocesan schools has fallen by about 1,000 students, or 10 percent, over the last five years, and by 23 percent over the last decade.

The diocese shuttered 10 schools over the last seven years, said Rick Maya, director of Catholic schools for the Sacramento Diocese.

Schools in urban communities were hit hardest, while most schools in suburban areas of the diocese remain full.

Maya said part of the problem in urban communities stemmed from quality. Much like public schools, he said, Catholic campuses sometimes struggle to educate students in poorer communities.

"Catholic schools aren't immune to the achievement gap," Maya said.

About three years ago, Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto assembled a committee of community members to come up with ideas on how to stanch the flow of students out of diocesan schools, Maya said. The result was a broad effort to recruit the best teachers and principals, improve teacher training, expand partnerships with Catholic universities and invest in academics and technology, he said.

Maya said the changes have stabilized enrollment.

"You have to wake up and say, what are we going to do different," he said. "We want to be able to educate all of our youth, regardless of ZIP code."

Besides recharging its academic approach, the diocese is appealing to consumers in an ever-competitive market.

To sweeten the pot, St. Philomene Catholic School in Arden Arcade is offering laptops for students in third through eighth grades, as well as lower tuition for all families, according to its website.

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/.

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