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Applications, donations and buildings go up at Richmond area private schools

Lena Price February 22, 2013 3
The Steward School's Bryan Innovation Lab is set to open in April. (Photos by Lena Price)

The Steward School’s $2.5 million Bryan Innovation Lab is set to open in April. (Photos by Lena Price)

As local public school systems are forced to tighten their belts, many of Richmond’s biggest private schools are feeling flush.

Applications and donations are at the highest level in years, according to administrators from some of area’s most well known private institutions. Several – including St. Catherine’s, St. Christopher’s, the Collegiate School and the Steward School – are also undertaking major construction projects.

More than 10,000 students attend Richmond’s 43 private schools. The five biggest schools by enrollment alone brought in more than $100 million in tuition and donations combined in 2011, according to the most recent data available.

Charles Stillwell, headmaster of St. Christopher’s, said the all-boys college prep school is close to maximum capacity with 958 students. Applications to the middle school and high school programs are as high as they’ve ever been, he said.

“It’s really hard to know what’s causing that,” Stillwell said. “It could be a reflection of some anxiety regarding budget cuts in the public school systems.”

More than half of the students who graduate from St. Christopher’s have been enrolled since kindergarten. But Stillwell said they also get healthy dose of new students in middle school and ninth grade.

Tuition, which starts at $16,975 per student, covers about 72 percent of the operating budget at St. Christopher’s. Most of the remaining balance comes from donations, which Stillwell said have been strong. Between 50 and 60 percent of alumni donate to the organization.

“Like other schools, we saw a slight tightening during the recession,” Stillwell said. “We’re fortunate to have a very helpful endowment, and we fared better than the overall market.”

St. Christopher’s endowment is $63 million, and the school is in the final stages of a four-year, $30 million capital campaign. The school’s foundation brought in $7.1 million in 2011, according to the most recent tax records available.

The Collegiate School, Richmond’s largest private school in terms of enrollment and one of the oldest in the area, is on pace to have as many applicants as it’s had in the past decade, headmaster Keith Evans said.

“In an economy that feels a little uncertain, I think families have come to understand children really need an education that cultivates creativity and the ability to think innovatively,” Evans said.

The Academic Commons at the Collegiate School.

The Collegiate School’s Academic Commons.

Tuition, which is $21,520 for the high school, covers about 80 percent of costs for the Collegiate School. Evans said most of that money goes toward teacher and staff salaries. The 98-year-old school generated $42 million in revenue in 2011, according to the most recent figures available. That’s up from $35 million the previous year.

The school is building a $14 million, 27,000-square-foot Academic Commons on its North Mooreland Road campus. An additional $8 million worth of renovations to various campus areas, including a library and outdoor spaces, is in the works. All of the buildings on Collegiate’s two West End campuses are financed with donations.

“Soliciting gifts from people who made donations out of their own income was pretty challenging during a year or two of the recession,” Evans said. “It flattened out, but in recent years it’s really rebounded nicely. But we didn’t see the recession affect the capital side of fundraising.”

The Steward School is about to wrap construction on its Bryan Innovation Lab, a 6,000-square-foot, $2.5 million facility meant to teach students about open-ended problem solving. The lab will sit on 3.5 acres of the 37-acre campus at Gayton and Ryandale roads.

“If you walk in, you’re not going to see anyone sitting at a desk,” headmaster Ken Seward said. “It’s a very different setting.”

The lab should give students a better understanding of science, nature, technology and health, Seward said. The lab is set to open April 19.

Founded in 1972, the Steward School enrolls 627 students from junior kindergarten through 12th grade. That’s about as many as the campus and faculty can support, Seward said.

The school brought in $13.5 million in revenue in 2011, according to the most recent tax records available.

Seward said the school’s four main sources of income – tuition and fees, the annual fund, the endowment and facility rentals – have been stable. Up to 88 percent of current students’ families have made donations to the school on top of paying tuition, which ranges from about $13,000 to $20,000.

“We set our operating budget first, and then the tuition rate,” Seward said. “It varies from year to year, but we’ve found parents are going to go with the school that’s the best for their child.”

St. Catherine’s, an all-girls school founded in 1890, raised approximately $34.1 million in capital, endowment and annual giving combined as part of its current four-phase fundraising campaign, head of school Terrie Hale Scheckelhoff said. One hundred percent of faculty and staff contribute to the annual fund.

“These statistics send a powerful message that our constituents believe in the mission and work of the school,” Scheckelhoff said in an email.

The school’s foundation brought in $6.5 million in 2011, according to the most recent tax records available.

Some of the smaller private schools in Richmond are also seeing a bump. Seven Hills School, an all-boys middle school that opened in 2001 on Overbrook Road, near Virginia Union University, is on track to accept 100 students in the next three to five years, said Chip Hardy, the school’s director of operations and admissions.

With 70 students paying $14,500 a year in tuition, Seven Hills brought in $1.09 million in revenue for the year ending June 2012. That’s up more than $200,000 from the previous year.

“We’ve had a steady increase in applicants over the past few years, and this year we’re on track to have more applicants than ever,” Hardy said. “I think more and more people are looking for progressive education opportunities for their kids.”

More reading: Check out this list of the 50 most expensive private schools in the county

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3 Comments »

  1. mike February 22, 2013 at 11:48 am - Reply

    It’s really simple. Capital flows to quality. While Richmond city schools have made progress they still are not good enough. Richmond spends 20% more per pupil than other VA schools and almost 50% more than Hanover, but delivers much worse results. My friends who live in the city WANT to send their kids to public schools, but until the schools improve, I see them taking two paths; moving to the county or signing up for private schools. If the city had multiple schools as good as Fox and Maggie Walker, people would send their kids to city schools, until that happens, the tax base will be effected by people moving and private schools will continue to flourish.

  2. DA February 23, 2013 at 8:04 am - Reply

    It is this flight which removes the cultural and social capital from the public schools which are necessary for them to be able to improve and flourish.

    The schools that are doing well are doing so because of parental involvement and dedication, and an economically diverse enrollment.

    The schools that are failing are not doing so because of RPS, but because they have been tasked with fixing the ails of the city, notably the concentrated poverty. If we fix the neighborhoods and have true community involvement, many of the city’s public schools would be doing much better.

  3. Tom February 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    DA – if it were just that easy. Remember the students going to private schools represent a small portion and has occurred for a long time – see how long these schools have been opened. The sad truth is that the poor state of RPS reflects a community that really doesn’t value education and isn’t willing to sacrifice to improve it. Attendance, test scores and lack of parental involvement proves this point. It’s silly to fault private schools for these problems.

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