Independent schools see opportunity in downturn
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When Dan Brongiel's job with software company Adobe was transferred back to the United States in 2008, he and his family were not exactly thrilled to be coming home.
The Brongiels had made a new home in Asia, spending three years in Hong Kong and a year and a half in Tokyo.
Their young children had become accustomed to the British-style international schools. In Hong Kong, they studied Mandarin and German, picking up "taxicab" Cantonese on the street. In Tokyo, the boys learned French and Japanese.
After considering parochial and public schools, Donna Brongiel decided to enroll her two sons in Fox River Country Day School in Elgin. She says the personalized instruction and character education is comparable to the international schooling they were used to.
"They took the time to really focus in on where my children's level of education had been," said Brongiel, a South Elgin resident. "They took a look at their past work and helped me drive them to where they should be."
Fox River Country Day, which draws students from as far as Crystal Lake and Geneva, occupies a unique place among Northwest and West suburban schools. It's one of seven accredited independent schools that offer private education without the religious instruction that defines parochial schools.
Independent schools offer many advantages over public schools. They typically have much smaller class sizes and robust gifted programs. They consider fine arts and world languages part of their core curriculum.
As the recession prompts many public schools to cut staff, gifted programs and the arts, independent schools hope parents will view them a viable alternative. The Avery Coonley School for gifted children in Downers Grove, which also serves families from Naperville, Oswego and Gurnee, has seen its enrollment remain steady through the recession.
"With the economy the way it is, even wealthy school districts have cut back on their gifted program or eliminated the gifted program," said Paul Barton, head of school at Avery Coonley. "It's driven people to us because public schools can no longer meet the needs of their kids."
At the same time, independent schools are facing many of the same challenges parochial schools are facing, with the economic pressures that brought the Brongiels back to the United States making it difficult for many parents to afford private school.
Students at Fox River Country Day, which is set among an idyllic, wooded campus on the east side of Elgin, are grouped according to skill level. If a third grader is doing math at a fourth grade level, the schedule at the school allows teachers to send that student to the higher-level math class without missing instruction in other areas.
"We're going to meet each child where they are," Head of School Karen Morse said. "We're going to stretch them and raise the expectations."
But despite Fox River Country Day's educational model, it has not been immune from the recession. Enrollment dropped this year from 180 to about 155, as the $13,750 yearly tuition proved too much for some families.
"The economy took a toll on some of our parents," said Kojo Darkwa, director of admissions. "You have families moving away … for other jobs. You have families that want to move closer to home. Families are out of jobs. The tuition is a factor."
Elgin Academy also has seen a decline in enrollment, losing about 24 students this year. But Head of School John Cooper says the recession is an opportunity for independent schools to drive home their mission to donors, many of whom are parents at the school.
"You need to structure your appeal on keeping the core things in place," Cooper said. "Too many fundraising operations look at a recession as a problem. People want to be affiliated with a winner rather than a loser. You can't play the 'woe is me' approach in fundraising."
Like Elgin Academy, Avery Coonley in Downers Grove has used the downturn to talk about what sets it apart from other schools. Last year, the school's annual giving campaign raised almost one-third more than the year before.
"Having a very particular mission of gifted, being faithful to that mission … allows us not only to ride through this very (difficult) economic time but to thrive," said Barton, head of Avery Coonley.
As independent schools rely more on donors to supplement tuition -- their major source of revenue -- they also have had to step up financial assistance to families. Many schools will cover up to 50 percent of demonstrated need per child.
Thomas Mikolyzk, head of the Science and Arts Academy in Des Plaines, was recently approached by a father who lost his job and was struggling to afford tuition while he was unemployed. The parent said he was thinking about pulling his kids out of the school.
Mikolyzk told him: "Don't do that … You're a smart guy, keep your kids here. We're going to carry you for this period."
Later, the parent found a job and was able to keep his kids at the school.
"We didn't lose anybody for money reasons," Mikolyzk said. "We will work with them to keep them here."
Mikolyzk estimates about 25 percent of parents will receive financial aid this year, up from about 20 percent two years ago. The increased assistance is one factor driving a retention rate of almost 100 percent at the Des Plaines school, an increase of 62 students this year and a waiting list through grade four, Mikolyzk said.
Even after the economy recovers, some independent school advocates believe trends in public education will continue to make independent education an attractive alternative for parents.
While these advocates say they support the goal of increased accountability in education, they also say state and federal education officials, who have not been shy about their desire to introduce more standardized tests, may be going too far.
"There's an overreliance on testing and meeting demands of No Child Left Behind," said Ben Hebebrand, head of school at Quest Academy in Palatine. "That is beginning to turn some people off. They want an education that is more geared toward their child and not based on some statistical analysis."
Ironically, the push for school choice that is central to the movement to reform public education may also benefit independent schools.
"They represent a different choice," Hebebrand said. "Choice, when it comes to education, is not a bad thing."
Choice: Several independent schools provide financial aid if family is struggling
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