Generation gap

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by Heather B. Hayes

Private schools are accustomed to dealing with numbers, whether it’s teaching the basics of algebra or balancing revenues and expenses.

Now, however, many schools are dealing with a demographic equation that doesn’t offer a clear-cut answer. The leading edge of the baby boom generation will reach retirement age in less than five years, a development that could deprive schools of their most experienced educators and create a national teacher shortage. At the same time, schools are bracing for the potential effects of a national drop in the number of school-age children after years of dealing with the 80-million-plus Generation Y, the last members of which just recently entered middle school.

How these population shifts will affect private schools is “kind of an unknown,” says Sally Boese, executive director of the Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS). “I would say that schools are concerned.”

John G. Lathrop, headmaster of Powhatan School in Clarke County, already is trying to solve the population problem. Several of the school’s top administrators, including Lathrop, are in their early 60s, a fact that prompted the board of trustees to ask him to draw up a succession plan. “We’ve got a situation where the headmaster, the head of the lower school, the head of the upper school and the business manager are all within a year of each other in age, and isn’t that a bit dense?” Lathrop asks. “So now we do have a plan, where one of the division heads will go first, then we’ll hire someone else and get them trained, and then someone else will leave and so on. So we’ve got a plan, but until it actually comes true, it is a matter of real concern to us.”

Surviving a retirement tsunami

The loss of experienced teachers because of retirement also could have a devastating effect on schools, says Paul Stellato, headmaster of North Cross School in Roanoke. “While we find the faculty quality of entry-level and midcareer faculty to be great, it’s still very difficult for me to replace a faculty member with 20 to 30 years experience with someone else who has the same level of experience,” he says.

To avoid that problem, some schools are trying to persuade teachers to continue working beyond age 65. “I think the fact that teachers are often willing and interested in working a little later into their career will help smooth out some of the transition issues,” says Charles M. Stillwell, headmaster of St. Christopher’s School in Richmond.

St. Christopher’s, in fact, provides many incentives for teachers to stay on. The all-boys school awards endowed faculty chairs, makes sure teachers can participate in various professional associations and offers special funds that allow them to pursue trips or programs “that they might not be able to do otherwise but that are meaningful to their intellectual or educational interests,” says Stillwell.

Other schools are tweaking their recruitment strategies. A few private schools can offer salaries comparable to those found in public school systems.  The median salary for teachers at the Powhatan School, for example, is $45,000, just 5 percent less than that offered by public schools in Clarke and Frederick counties. Most private schools, though, can’t compete on salary, so they focus on providing incentives important to teachers.

For example, Browne Academy in Alexandria is considering more tuition assistance for teachers pursuing graduate degrees. “We have found that getting help with paying for their course work is something that is increasingly important to teachers, because, if they can receive that advanced degree, they usually get a salary increase as well,” says headmistress Margaret N. Durkin.

Administrators also are trying to retain their entry-level and mid-level faculty by providing a variety of work/life benefits. Many schools offer 50 to 100 percent tuition remission for the children of faculty, a traditional private-school perk. St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria provides on-site daycare for teachers’ infants and toddlers. The families of St. Christopher’s faculty can take advantage of as many as three free meals a day in the school’s cafeteria. “That not only is a nice financial benefit, but it helps foster a sense of community as well,” says Stillwell.

Preparing for a baby bust

While schools look for ways to keep teachers, they also anticipate a declining number of students in elementary grades. In 2002, the U.S. birth rate plunged to its lowest level since 1909, when national data was first made available. With just 13.9 births per 1,000 people, the birth rate for children born in 2002 is 17 percent off of birth rates experienced in 1990, the peak year of the Generation Y.

While birth rates have trended slightly upward since, there is no question that schools are dealing with fewer school-age children. In fact, the number of students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in VAIS member schools dropped 10 percent, from 12,230 in fall 2006 to 11,028 in fall 2007. “The demographics are not great,” admits Stellato. “I think there will be fewer candidates to look at, and I think schools are also thinking carefully about the dollars they charge.”

The leaders of Virginia private schools say they are preparing for the effects of the population decline, but at the moment, most schools are doing just fine, thanks to a number of other factors. For example, many Virginia regions boast a higher than average number of school-age children. These areas include Norfolk, where young military families are constantly moving in, and Richmond, which has seen a growth in the number of young families in recent years.

Some areas, however, are seeing declines in the student population, a situation that has forced private schools to take extreme measures. The Carlisle School in Martinsville, for instance, has been able to offset the loss of many families after a number of factories closed. The school has become an International Baccalaureate World School, opened a dormitory for boarders and developed a program that allows international students to live with local families. Administrators also expanded the school’s reach by opening a pre-kindergarten through first grade campus in Danville in 2003. “We’ve had to change the quality of our product,” says headmaster Simon Owen-Williams, noting that many students commute from as far away as Rocky Mount, Va., and Reedsville, N.C.

As a result, the school is growing, with 471 students currently enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, including eight full-time boarding students and 13 international students living with host families. Five years ago, the school had fewer than 400 students.

Another factor helping many private schools is the effort they’ve made to promote themselves to market segments such as minorities, the middle class and socio-economically disadvantaged families.

The Norfolk Collegiate School recently hired its first director of marketing and communications “to pursue a more broad-based marketing campaign that can attract a more diverse student application pool,” says headmaster William W. King. And North Cross School in the last 18 months invested $90,000 in a more interactive Web site, which officials believe will make the school more attractive to busy parents. The site will allow parents to check attendance records, interact with teachers and stay on top of their child’s school activities.

North Cross, in fact, has been so effective in its other marketing efforts in recent years that its middle school is full-to-bursting, and administrators are considering an expansion. But Stellato is starting to see a slight weakening in enrollment in his lower grades, and that gives him pause. “Will the school continue to get bigger? Will it get smaller?” he asks. “It’s hard to know for sure, so long-range planning for us is just a bit more complex now.” 



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