By Michaela Kron
While several private schools in Atlanta have reported steady or increased enrollments this school year, the recession has caused some families to rethink the cost of a private-school education and give local public schools a second look.
In particular, charter schools have attracted more students and seen increases in enrollment.
At Riverwood International Charter School in Sandy Springs, enrollment grew by almost 18 percent over the last two years, with 1,465 students this year. Of the new students at Riverwood this year, 111 of them enrolled from 35 private schools in Georgia, according to Principal Eddie Echols.
“We’re seeing a large number of kids come back to us that actually live in our attendance zone,” Echols said, explaining that Riverwood’s charter allows the school to enroll students from outside the Fulton County School System.
Echols said the school has attracted more students because of its International Baccalaureate program, its competitive standardized test scores and because “kids are getting into the colleges they want to get into.”
Other charter schools in Sandy Springs, such as Spalding Drive Charter Elementary School and Woodland Elementary Charter School, have also attracted families with children in private schools because of their competitive curricula.
Sandy Springs resident Jessica Strauss enrolled three of her children at Spalding Drive this year. They had attended The Epstein School in Sandy Springs.
“The individualized curriculum that they do at public schools is amazing,” Strauss said. “They’ve been really challenged there.”
Sandy Springs District 4 Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins, who enrolled her two children at Woodland from a private school in Sandy Springs, said she was impressed by Woodland’s rigorous academic standards.
“I started talking to the principal of Woodland, and she was telling me about what they were doing,” Jenkins said. “I was literally blown away with the curriculum. They’re really introducing concepts at a young age.”
Laura Stowell, the Fulton school system’s charter school liaison, said she feels that an advantage to charter schools is their higher degree of local governance.
“We find that that is what’s most attractive to parents, especially parents coming in from private schools,” Stowell said. “Each charter school in Sandy Springs is different.”
Other public schools in Sandy Springs have also seen significant growth this year. At Heards Ferry Elementary School, enrollment increased by almost 20 percent, from 411 students last school year to 493 this year, and about half of the new students came from private schools.
While Heards Ferry Principal Susan Dorenkamp partially attributes the increase in private-school students enrolling at the school to the current economic situation, she also said high test scores and a competitive curriculum give Heards Ferry a solid reputation within the community.
Sandy Springs resident Anne Marie Esslinger, who previously sent her two children to Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, decided to enroll them at Heards Ferry this school year.
“We were always so thrilled with Holy Innocents that we never really looked at any of the public schools,” Esslinger said. “Heards Ferry was getting better and better and better, and Holy Innocents was getting more and more expensive.”
Public schools in Buckhead, all of which are accredited International Baccalaureate schools, have also attracted more families because of their competitive curriculum.
Sutton Middle School enrolled 1,054 students this year, above its projection of 973.Principal Audrey Sofianos said increasing numbers are both a result of students enrolling from private schools and new sixth-graders who begin middle school at Sutton.
“People are seeing the school as in their own backyard,” Sofianos said. “Because of the economy, they are looking at things through a different lens.”
North Atlanta High School has also been seeing an increased student body, and according to Principal Mark Mygrant, about 95 percent of eighth-graders at Sutton transition to North Atlanta for high school.
Buckhead resident Marie Arjomand, who enrolled her daughter at E. Rivers Elementary School a couple years ago after she had attended The Suzuki School for preschool, said she believes much of the attraction to public schools in the area has come from word of mouth.
“Some of it is due to the economy, but a lot of it is that [parents] are hearing great things,” Arjomand said.
While some public schools in Sandy Springs and Buckhead have seen higher numbers of private-school students enrolling, Chamblee Charter High School, which enrolls many students from Brookhaven, has not seen as much growth; from July to September of 2009, nine students enrolled at Chamblee with a reason code of “from a Georgia private school,” according to Dale Davis, spokesman for DeKalb County Schools.
Despite some of the reported increases in private-school students enrolling in public schools, Jeff Jackson, president of the Georgia Independent Schools Association, said attrition rates at private schools have remained fairly steady.
Paul Stockhammer, headmaster and president of The Brandon Hall School in Sandy Springs and president of the Georgia Private Education Council, believes that although the economy has been partially responsible for attrition rates at private schools, the situation could ultimately make private schools more competitive.
“People will be doing more follow-ups when a family visits,” he said, explaining that this type of quality control could create a more competitive market among private schools.
But Stockhammer said he does not perceive any competition between private schools and public schools.
“There’s room for both types of schools,” he said.
Info on charter schools
Some area charter schools recently have seen more growth in their student populations. Below are some facts about charter schools in Georgia:
• There are 121 charter schools in Georgia now, compared to 35 charter schools five years ago.
• While 41 are start-up charter schools, 31 are conversion charter schools. All charter schools in Sandy Springs, as well as Chamblee Charter High School, are conversion charter schools.
• Fulton County has the most charter schools, with a total of 12, half of which are in Sandy Springs.
• There are almost 65,000 students in charter schools in Georgia now, compared to 17,000 students five years ago.
• Four percent of Georgia’s public school students are enrolled in charter schools.
• 12 charter schools, such as Riverwood International Charter School, offer an International Baccalaureate program.
Compiled by Michaela Kron
Source: Georgia Charter Schools Association