Private Practices

This summer’s revelations about the wave of standardized test cheating in several of the country’s major school districts were just another black eye for American public education. From substandard test scores to security concerns, public school systems have had a rough few years.

But while public education critics often tout their advantages, many private schools around the nation are also struggling in the wake of the ongoing economic mire.

Fortunately, private schools in Oklahoma appear to be staving off the problems others elsewhere face. In fact, Oklahoma private schools report that enrollment has stabilized after a decline tied to the recession. Some of Tulsa’s and Oklahoma City’s largest private schools saw enrollment decline in 2009, bounce back last year and look solid as the new school year arrives.

“There is no question that the economy is a factor,” says Geoffrey Butler, headmaster at Tulsa’s Holland Hall.

But Holland Hall, like fellow notable Tulsa institutions Bishop Kelley High School and Cascia Hall, report that enrollment for the new school year will be in line with last year and years past.

Cascia Hall Headmaster Roger Carter, in fact, says enrollment is “as big as we have ever been.”

Oklahoma City’s Heritage Hall is experiencing a similar phenomenon. Heritage Hall has been “going up every year,” according to spokesperson Debbie Bolding. “Every year for the last 10 years there has been a steady increase in enrollment.”

Fact:  Many students are following in the footsteps of parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.

Just a few miles down the road, Bishop McGuinness is living in the same bubble.

“Our enrollment has been pretty constant,” says public relations director Sandy Cunningham.

Bishop McGuinness has even had to add portable classrooms each of the last two years to keep up with its growth.

Casady School Headmaster Christopher Bright says his school experienced a decline in 2009, but bounced back the next year.

Oklahoma private schools are bucking the national trend. As far back as 2009, CBS News was reporting on shrinking private school enrollment, noting that drops are common following even mild recessions. After the relatively brief 1990-1991 recession, private schools lost 33,000 students; they lost more than 200,000 students after the recession triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks, according to CBS.

About 5.6 percent of Oklahoma’s approximately 699,000 elementary and high school students attend private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That puts total enrollment in Oklahoma’s 250 private schools at about 39,000. Nationally, that percentage has held consistently at 10 to 12 percent for the last four decades, whether boom time or bust, whether it’s the Baby Boomer surge of the early 1970s or Net Gen kids shuffling off to class today.

Religious instruction appears to be one reason for stable enrollment in the state’s private schools. The vast majority of private schools are affiliated with Christian denominations or churches.

“Parents want support in passing on the faith to their kids,” says Fr. Brian O’Brien, president of Bishop Kelley.

Family tradition is another factor at play. Cascia Hall’s Carter notes that many students are following in the footsteps of parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.