Private Schools Credit Range of Reasons for Growth


While much of the public’s attention remains focused on the newly consolidated public schools, many of the Mid-South’s privately funded schools are quietly heralding their own milestones and new developments.

Private schools throughout the Memphis area are enjoying growth in enrollments and programs.

(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

Contrary to earlier predictions, most of them didn’t see an influx of new students seeking refuge from what many saw as chaos and uncertainty in the public school system.

In fact, there isn’t necessarily one trend that’s collectively affecting the privately funded school sector, said Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School head of school Thor Kvande.

At the Memphis Association of Independent Schools meetings, representatives from more than 35 member schools, including his, primarily discuss issues of the day and educational topics, he said.

“Of course we’re all interested to see what happens with the school consolidation,” he said. “We all want what’s best for the children of Memphis, and we’re all hopeful that there will be good solutions.”

As for his school, enrollment is up in record numbers, primarily because of the August launch of the Little Lukers program. That program for 2- and 3-year-olds provides an initial school experience founded in best practices developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The program has added 43 new students, along with new faculty.

At St. Louis Catholic School in Memphis, adding pre-kindergarten classes also has proved to be a successful approach. After school officials added a 3- and 4-year-old preschool in 2010, there was such a high demand for it that they recently added more classes.

Enrollment has risen to 534 current students, up from 487 students in 2010, which can be attributed to the new preschool classes, as well as a growing desire among parents to seek out schools with a faith-based foundation, said school officials.

“We’ve been working to enhance the sanctuary of our church along with the future of our children,” said school pastor Monsignor John B. McArthur. “And that’s something people want to invest in. You always want to invest in things that touch your heart, and two of those things are often faith and children.”

Right now, those investments will go toward a multimillion-dollar project that will include a new junior high wing with eight new classrooms, a state-of-the-art science lab, a music studio and a distance-learning center.

In addition, as the role of technology grows stronger in education, students will have access to a one-to-one Chromebook lab.

“This is an exciting time in education,” said principal Teddi Niedzwiedz. “We even changed our mission statement three years ago to show our commitment to technology.”

In part, the new mission statement reads “Working in partnership with parents and the community, we are dedicated to preparing our students for the future through faith formation and academic excellence utilizing progressive technology while enhancing students’ emotional, physical and spiritual well being.”

Harding Academy, with locations on Macon Road in Cordova and on Colonial and Cherry roads in Memphis, also is ushering in a new age of technology at its schools this year.

“We’ve just started a one-to-one iPad learning program for our grades six through 12,” said Allen Gillespie, director of advancement and community relations. “Students in lower grades will have at least one per classroom. It’s going to revolutionize things here. Students who forget their homework will be able to email it to teachers later. In-school announcements will go out through email now. And different teachers will be using them in different ways.”

Students will be able to take the iPads home and install their own apps on them; however, teachers will have the ability to pull up any student’s screen and monitor it at any time. And social issues, such as cyber-bullying and social media addiction, also will be addressed.

Gillespie also said the school gained more students transferring from other private schools this year. He speculates this reason is because kids sometimes need a change of atmosphere and peers, and Harding usually makes students feel welcome.

“We have such a diverse environment,” he said. “There’s not some cookie-cutter image of the typical Harding Academy student.”

In Cordova, First Assembly Christian School – a multi-denominational, college-preparatory Christian school serving about 800 students in grades junior kindergarten through 12 – also has nothing but progress to report.

“As a school, we weren’t devastated by the economy. I think that is largely because we have always operated cost-efficiently and maintained a reasonable tuition rate relative to both the per-student cost of public education and tuition at other area private schools,” said head of school Wendell Meadows. “Our enrollment has remained steady with modest drops during the worst of the recession and a modest increase this fall.”

During the last five years, FACS has opened two new facilities on its 42-acre campus. In 2009, FACS opened a second, 40,000-square-foot educational building with additional classrooms, a new varsity gymnasium and state-of-the-art vocal and choral music facilities.

In 2012, the school opened a freestanding guidance and counseling center, The Jones Center, where students meet with counselors and college representatives, access college information, complete college admissions and scholarship applications and receive tutoring services.

Two notable new academic programs are an iPad educational program for elementary students and an innovative M-Term program that offers internships at local businesses for upper classmen.

“This is my 18th year at FACS, and I believe we’re offering our students the strongest faculty we’ve ever had,” Meadows said. “We’re also offering students more opportunities than ever before to develop their unique God-given gifts and abilities both inside and outside the classroom.”