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Private school interest grows

Even in the middle of a recession, private schools with annual tuition of $9,000 to $20,000 seem more enticing than ever.

Tours of the Alexander Dawson School At Rainbow Mountain are up 50 percent over last year.

Mike Imperi, headmaster of the K-8 school of 630 students on West Desert Inn Road near the Las Vegas Beltway, said "enrollment (for next year) is strong. We’ll likely open with more students than this year."

Registration for Faith Lutheran Junior and Senior High School is at an all-time high as 1,421 students have applied for admission. The school can only accept 1,355. Enrollment this year was 1,280.

"We’ll be close to capacity," said Kevin Dunning, the school’s director.

Fear appears to be a motivating factor as parents worry about the decline in public education because of state budget cuts, administrators say.

"I attribute part of this (increased interest) to the budget crisis in the Clark County School District," said Dunning, director of Faith Lutheran in Summerlin.

The Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus, a Jewish school in Summerlin, "is seeing more inquiries from families who are currently public school families," said Kay Lau, a spokeswoman.

Lau said the number of inquiries to the school has increased 10 percent. Adelson serves about 400 students.

"These families express concern about the budget cutbacks and how the quality of education might be sacrificed for their children: no arts, PE and the like," she said.

The Clark County School District has budgeted for $120 million in planned spending reductions for next year, which will mean cuts in school staffing and the end of some popular elective classes like theater and Chinese.

Private school officials said one of their biggest attractions might be stability. Despite the recession, the Adelson school, for instance, "is not cutting back on any of its programs," Lau said.

While class sizes of 40 to 50 students are not uncommon in the Clark County school system, Dawson averages about nine students to a teacher, Imperi said.

The financial crisis in the public schools helped convince Joni Trageton to send her 10-year-old son, Zachary, to Faith Lutheran next year for sixth grade. Zachary is currently enrolled at Ober Elementary School, a public school in Summerlin.

"It’s scary what’s going on," Trageton said. "They’re cutting into the sports program. I’ve seen the arts get cut, special needs get cut, even a program like GATE (Gifted and Talented Education)."

Because public school funding is based on enrollment, about $5,000 per student annually, the flight of students to private schools could exacerbate the financial crisis.

Walt Rulffes, superintendent of Clark County School District, said he is not concerned about predictions of student gains in private schools because he believes the opposite is more likely to be true. Public schools will gain students as families can no longer afford private school tuition.

For the first time in at least 10 years, private school enrollment in Clark County for 2008-09 declined over last year. There were 15,981 students enrolled this year compared to 16,155 last year, a drop of 2 percent, according to the Nevada Department of Education.

The county is home to about 100 private schools, but many are preschools or have small enrollment. Total private school enrollment is equal to about 19 percent of public school enrollment in Clark County, which is 311,155.

Private school officials acknowledge that the increased interest in their schools might only be wishful window shopping. They won’t know for sure how many students enroll until the beginning of the school year in August or September.

Kevin Cloud, executive director of the Dawson Center, the foundation which supports the Dawson School, noted that "recessions do not hit everybody equally."

The public school families who can afford tuition are giving private schools a fresh look, Cloud said.

Carolyn Goodman, president and founder of the Meadows, a pre-kindergarten to 12th grade academy in Summerlin with 910 students, doesn’t doubt that the recession might force some families to pull their children from the school, but it won’t affect enrollment "because we have wait lists at every grade level."

Private school administrators said they had to expand their financial aid programs. Imperi, the head master at Dawson, said the school expects to spend about $1.5 million on tuition assistance next year compared with $1.2 million this year.

Dunning, the administrator of Faith Lutheran, added, "We’ve seen an uptick in families who have come to us and said, ‘Our financial circumstances have changed,’ and they need help with tuition."

The trustees of Adelson Education Campus were motivated to offer a merit-based scholarship to its high school, or "upper school," because they want the school to be accessible, Lau said. The upper school charges about $18,900 a year.

Private school administrators said their schools are weathering the financial storm by drawing from savings and boosting their fundraising.

"At the end of the day, our students are our first priority, and we’re doing everything we can to support them," said Angela Blagg, a spokeswoman for Bishop Gorman High School, the Catholic high school.

Trageton said she and her husband realize they will make financial sacrifices to afford to send two sons to Faith Lutheran next year. An older son, Tyler, 13, is already enrolled and will be a ninth-grader next year.

"The kids are the future," Trageton said. "We have to provide for them."

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug @reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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