Early this month, the Albemarle County Planning Commission heard from not one but two private school headmasters at its regular meeting in Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building. The institutions themselves were very different: Tandem Friends School, a 44-year-old Quaker middle and high school, and Regents, a small Christian K-through-12 academy founded in 2010. But their requests were similar: We’re growing; let us expand. The two schools are part of a trend reversal in private education locally and nationally, but for independents like them, growth isn’t as simple as signing up more kids.
Domestic enrollment at independent schools around the country took a nosedive in the wake of the 2008 recession, and Charlottesville and Albemarle institutions weren’t exceptions. At Tandem, the school population dropped from 239 to 209 between 2009 and 2010, said Head of School Andy Jones-Wilkins. “It was for a variety of reasons, but the most cited reason was inability to afford the tuition,” he said. Other families left the area to find work elsewhere.
Tripp Darrin is head of the Blue Ridge School, a boys’ boarding school in Albemarle. Schools like his, which draw pupils from a wider area, were better able to insulate themselves from the effects of the recession, he said, but they still had a tough year after 2008. Such volatility is hard on private schools, because their budgets are so tuition dependent, said Darrin. “The general rule of thumb is that 80 percent of the operating revenue of the schools comes from tuition, so if you have a drop off, you have to find a way to cut expenses to balance that,” he said.
But the tide has turned locally. Several schools contacted, including St. Anne’s-Belfield and the Miller School, declined to share annual enrollment numbers, but said student populations have grown significantly since the 2008-09 school year.
Then there are the new schools. Besides Regents, which jumped from seven to 83 students in four years, there’s the Field School, a boys’ middle school in Crozet, which opened its doors in 2007. Despite getting its start in the worst economic downturn in a generation, enrollment has grown steadily, from 27 in the founding year to 83 last year. It’s not easy, said Head of School Todd Barnett; the number of private schools per capita in the area is unusually large, and they’re all competing with very good public schools. “You have to stick out,” he said.
And then you have to make room—something that’s not always straightforward. The school leaders who went before the Planning Commission walked away with different results. Regents’ request to grow from 96 to 130 students by the 2015-16 school year was shot down over concerns about traffic coming and going from its location on Route 250 west of Farmington. Head of School Courtney Palumbo said Regents is already looking for a new location.
Meanwhile, Jones-Wilkins said Tandem is looking forward to getting back to its pre-recession 240-245 range—and making some long-awaited updates. The growth is a good thing, he said, and indicates the high quality of education across the board in the area. “It’s one of the things that makes us such a vibrant community,” he said.