The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in fall 2019, the most recent period for which private school enrollment data is available, about 4.7 million students, roughly 9%, in kindergarten through grade 12 were enrolled in private schools, a figure mostly unchanged since 2009.
But Grenita Lathan, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, said COVID-19 altered the picture. The pandemic caused many students nationwide to leave public schools (NCES reported 1.5 million students dropped out in 2020-21), and many districts have yet to recover.
In fall 2019, prior to the pandemic, SPS enrollment was at 24,677, but in 2020, the number fell to 23,165. Current enrollment is back up to 23,594, according to the district website.
Lathan noted the district takes seriously the competition posed by both private schools and homeschooling, as both options draw some students away from SPS.
“Students in your school district who should be attending public school and choose to go private or charter, that impacts overall funding for a school district,” Lathan said. “That’s something we have to think about as we work to retain students that we have but also draw students back in.”
Charter schools: Not here yet
Currently, charter schools are not part of the Springfield landscape. State law allows them in Kansas City and St. Louis. The Missouri Charter Public School Association identifies 67 schools serving 25,634 students in those cities.
In June, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill adding $62 million in funding for charter schools across Missouri. A charter school is an independent public school that is free of some rules and regulations that apply to traditional public school districts, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In exchange for flexibility, DESE’s definition notes, charter school sponsors must hold the schools accountable for results. Charter schools are non-sectarian and may not discriminate in admission policies nor charge tuition or fees.
During Springfield Business Journal’s 12 People You Need to Know live interview series on Sept. 20, Lathan made it clear that the school board and district officials don’t want them.
“We don’t want charter schools to move into our area – I’ll be very honest with you,” she said.
Lathan told SBJ’s audience she comes from a district in Houston, Texas, that had charter schools.
“It changes the landscape, and so we need to be watchful and mindful when the next legislative session starts,” she said. “It changes the dynamics of a community.”
Lathan said it is appropriate to think of private and charter schools as competition.
“What happens with public schools is those who can afford to leave, leave,” she said.
The district is left to operate with the same needs for staffing and overhead but with less money to do so. Districts receive a per pupil expenditure amount for each student enrolled.
In SPS in 2020, per pupil expenditures ranged from $14,930 at Delaware Elementary to $8,296 at Walt Disney Elementary, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
SBJ’s annual list of the largest private elementary and secondary schools ranks the top 15 by enrollment, with fall numbers ranging from five students at Captstone: An Acton Academy to 1,264 at Springfield Catholic Schools.
The schools on the list together report 4,641 students enrolled, about 90 more students than last year. SBJ’s 2019 list shows 3,851 students enrolled at the top 15 largest private schools in the area for a 21% increase from pre-pandemic to post-pandemic numbers.
Stephen Hall, the district’s chief communication officer, said a handful of private school and homeschool students receive services from SPS that aren’t provided by their private school or their home learning environment.
The schools on the list all charge tuition. The largest private school, Springfield Catholic, charges annual tuition ranging $6,152-$9,458. Infinity Academy, which is for middle and high school students with developmental disabilities and other diverse needs, is the most expensive school, at $15,000.
The least expensive school listed, Gloria Deo Academy, charges $2,600-$3,455.
In terms of enrollment, performance of the private schools ranges from 29% year-over-year growth at Christian Schools of Springfield to a 9% loss at St. Joseph Christian Academy.
The private difference
On the campus of Missouri State University, Greenwood Laboratory School is at record-high enrollment, according to Interim Assistant Director Jeni Hopkins. Greenwood has 412 K-12 students, 4% more than last year, according to SBJ list research, though Hopkins had recently met with some prospective students who might take that number up to 415. Greenwood’s annual tuition is $7,100.
Hopkins said a lot of students and families choose Greenwood for its college preparatory focus. “One hundred percent of our students go to college,” she said.
She said nine of the classes on campus are for dual credit but are taught at Greenwood by a high school teacher. Students can also enroll in courses on the MSU campus and leave Greenwood to walk to an MSU classroom.
Hopkins said high schoolers are expected to present exhibitions about a topic of their choosing. These demonstrate their learning, and at the senior level require 30 hours of service learning, a multimedia presentation and a defense of the research before a panel of teachers.
“Some of our exhibitions have been jaw dropping – phenomenal,” she said, noting a few nonprofits have been launched as a result of the exercise.
At New Covenant Academy, which has an annual tuition range of $7,005-$8,305, 772 students are enrolled for what Development Director Glenda Scott describes as a Christian education with a strong focus on academics for students K-12.
“The thing that really sets us apart is our Christian education,” she said. “We want people that want to come here for that reason.”
She noted the school has experienced significant growth recently, including 6% growth since last year.
“We’re almost out of space,” she said.
While Christianity is key, Scott said the curriculum is rigorous and has a defined set of educational objectives. Dual credit offerings are available through partnerships with colleges, and there are clubs and activities to keep students engaged.
Lathan said SPS’s curriculum is also tied to learning standards, and last year added a focus on ensuring lessons were closely tied to standards.
Hall noted one of Lathan’s initiatives has been to provide more openness about what is being taught in the classroom. A curriculum page on the district’s website links to learning standards for every grade level, and all of those align with state standards, he said.
Lathan said the district is working to expand options for specialized learning, but this year selected students can avail themselves of magnet schools dedicated to agriculture, health sciences, performing arts and the environment. The Launch program provides an online learning option that is used by over 300 school districts across the state.
Hall pointed out that public schools teach everyone, rather than a select few.
“That’s the beauty of public education,” he said. “It’s a responsibility, but it’s also a privilege to serve all children. That’s the model of public education.”
Mercy Springfield Communities relocated a clinic; San Clemente, California-based law firm Gilson Daub Inc. expanded to the Springfield market; and a second video gaming center for Contender eSports Springfield LLC opened in the Queen City.