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Despite hard times, non-public enrollment holds firm

Enrollment at local private schools and homeschool registrations have remained steady despite the economic downturn, surprising even education leaders.

Private school enrollment is stable and has grown at some campuses this school year, though the amount of financial aid given out has increased.

Meanwhile, the number of homeschoolers, which some educators thought might increase because of parents who were unemployed or unhappy with budget cuts at public schools, has declined.

Private school leaders had projected enrollments to drop dramatically this year because of Jackson County's high rate of unemployment, underemployment and other effects of the recession. The county's unemployment rate was 13.2 percent in August.

"People were calling with terrible stories about losing their jobs, and we were anticipating they wouldn't be able to return," said Ray Johnson, superintendent of Medford's Cascade Christian High School and Grace Christian School. "Our numbers are up, which is amazing. We are just so excited."

Cascade Christian has 351 students, about four more than last year and 41 more than what officials had projected in June, Johnson said.

Grace Christian, which serves kindergarten through eighth grades, has 630 students, exactly the same number as last year and 70 more than what officials had projected.

That is not to say the recession has not affected private schools.

The overall enrollment at Ashland's Siskiyou School, a private Waldorf school, declined by 16 pupils, from 166 to 150 in first through eighth grades, said Administrator Catherine Raza.

"Thirteen of the students left for financial reasons," Raza said. "It was where families lost jobs or life situations changed enough that we couldn't fill that gap with tuition assistance."

The percentage of students on tuition assistance increased from 21 percent last year to 26 percent this year, Raza said.

At Medford's St. Mary's School, which serves sixth through 12th grades, enrollment declined by three students, from 430 to 427, said Frank Phillips, head of school.

Financial aid at the private Catholic school went up by $100,000 this year, from $500,000 to $600,000.

Shirley Gray, principal of Sacred Heart School, did not return phone calls Wednesday and Thursday seeking enrollment figures for the private Catholic elementary school, a sister school of St. Mary's.

There are 1,037 homeschooled students in Jackson County who registered at the Southern Oregon Education Service District as required by law. That's 53 fewer than had registered at this time last year, figures showed.

However, staff members with the education service district cautioned that the count is fluid through the school year.

Students can register as homeschoolers at any time during the school year, so the number tends to grow as the year progresses, according to the education service district.

Ashland resident Tara Boucher almost withdrew her three children from the Siskiyou School after her husband's contracting business lost several projects because of the sagging economy. The children were registered at Ashland Middle School and Bellview Elementary School this summer. But the family decided against the change at the last minute, Boucher said.

Boucher said she is seeking a third job to help pay for the tuition, and the family is living without health insurance.

"It was a really difficult choice because finances are so tight," Boucher said. "In the end, what the Siskiyou School offered to the kids as far as community and one-on-one attention and a wholistic education had priority."

In the Ashland district, the children would likely have been in larger classes with teachers who are stressed out by overcrowding and recent layoffs, Boucher said.

Families who have not paid tuition from the previous year do not qualify for financial aid at Cascade and Grace, Johnson said.

"About 15 families were not able to return, and a number of those moved out of the valley to a more metropolitan place to find a job," Johnson said. "To turn it around we did a lot of promotion and advertising. That, along with people concerned about education at public schools and what is happening with budget cuts, brought in people who might not have thought about a Christian school before."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.