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Student demographics remain constant; no major shifts likely

Despite the weak economy and enrollment declines, student demographics at some local private schools have remained fairly constant in recent years. These schools have slightly more boys than girls enrolled, at least half of their students are white, and they come from various school districts.
The schools’ unique missions and alumni generosity are among the reasons why sweeping changes have not occurred, school officials say.
 
Signs of impending demographic shifts have not yet appeared either, they add, though they acknowledge that lower-income families squeezed by the economic downturn generally are not as inclined to choose private education.
 
Whether demographic changes have struck or not, private schools should keep close tabs on their strategic plans, says Lynne Kirst, assistant director of admissions and adjunct professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.
 
When private schools do not look ahead, "all of a sudden they’re surprised that they only have a kindergarten coming with 50 percent fewer students than they had the year before," says Kirst, a school administrator for nearly 40 years and former principal of Our Lady of Mercy High School in Rochester.
 
To fill classrooms, local parochial schools might need to market to non-Catholics, Kirst says. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester has closed several schools since 2008 amid declining enrollments.
 
Current demographics do not look much different at Bishop Kearney High School than they have in recent years, says Thomas O’Neil, president and CEO of the private co-ed Catholic school in Irondequoit.
 
Yet he expects the small international-student population, totaling 10 students this year, will increase slightly in the next few years as more foreign-born teenagers pursue secondary and higher education in the United States.
 
"We’ve been diverse for quite a while, and it’s something that we are proud of," says O’Neil, referring to the school’s minority and international students. "And I think the makeup of our school is somewhat real world."
 
Founded in 1962, Bishop Kearney serves students in grades seven through 12 and currently has 392 students. Fifty-four percent are male.
 
Seventy percent of Bishop Kearney students are white, and 30 percent are minorities. Blacks represent the largest percentage of minorities, followed by Hispanics, Asians and South Pacific Islanders.
 
Bishop Kearney draws from 21 school districts, with the city of Rochester, Irondequoit, Greece and Webster leading the residencies.
 
Its 10 international students plan to graduate from the school and enter college in the United States. Five of those students are African, and O’Neil recalls his own children studying alongside Africans when they were students at the school in the 1990s.
 
Non-Catholics make up 32 percent of high school students and 52 percent of junior high students at Bishop Kearney.
 
Legacy students represent 15 percent of Bishop Kearney’s student body, and "we’re so glad that Kearney graduates are still sending their children here," O’Neil says.
 
Bishop Kearney, which plans to launch sixth-grade education in the 2012-2013 school year, does not track other information related to parents, such as average household income or whether they have undergraduate or graduate degrees.
 
The Aquinas Institute of Rochester also has not seen significant demographic changes in recent years, says Joseph Knapp, director of admissions and public relations at the private co-ed Catholic school.
 
Though school leaders initially were concerned, Aquinas ended up with a higher-than-expected enrollment of 869 students this year, Knapp says. Founded in 1902 as Cathedral High School, Aquinas serves students in grades seven through 12 at its Dewey Avenue campus and pre-kindergarten to grade 6 at the Nazareth Academy campus on Lake Avenue.
 
Fifty-three percent of students in grades seven to 12 at Aquinas are male. Seventy-seven percent are white, 16 percent are black, 4 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are Asian and fewer than 1 percent are Native American.
 
Thirty percent of Aquinas students live in the city of Rochester. The next most common residencies are Greece and Gates-Chili, representing 26 percent and 7 percent of students, respectively. Knapp says more students from Webster have enrolled at the school in recent years and now represent 6 percent of the student body.
 
Aquinas currently has eight international students, five of whom plan to graduate from the school and enter college in the United States. The school does not have any students who are refugees or recent immigrants.
 
Non-Catholics make up 28 percent of Aquinas students. All are required to take theology classes, complete required community service and attend a monthly schoolwide Mass, Knapp says.
 
Legacy students play an important role in demographics at Aquinas. Twenty-two percent have a father or grandfather who is an Aquinas alum, and 15 percent have a mother or grandmother who graduated from Nazareth Academy.
 
Aquinas does not track other information related to parents, such as average household income or whether they have undergraduate or graduate degrees.
 
Growing the endowment has provided a way to attract and retain students needing financial assistance, Knapp says. The school offers financial aid or academic scholarships to roughly 45 percent of students.
 
Non-religious local private schools such as Webster Montessori School also have not experienced significant demographic changes in recent years. But Jacqueline Griebel, Webster Montessori’s head of school, says some families are waiting until summer to enroll children, versus doing so in late winter or spring, as was the norm in years past.
 
Founded in 1967, Webster Montessori serves children from 18 months old to 12 years and currently has 98 students. Fifty-five percent are male.
 
Forty-nine percent of Webster Montessori students are white, 26 percent are Asian, 11 percent are multiracial, 9 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are black and 1 percent is South Pacific Islander.
 
Sixty percent of Webster Montessori students live in Webster. Students also come from Penfield, Greece and other areas.
 
Webster Montessori does not have any students who are refugees or recent immigrants, but it has had students whose families come to the Rochester area for high-tech work and do not settle here permanently, Griebel says.
 
One local private school experiencing a slight demographic shift is Westfall Academy in Brighton. The school serves students from pre-kindergarten to grade 5 and operates under the umbrella of the Islamic Center of Rochester.
 
Westfall principal Yasmin Kabir says the school has 85 students and has seen the number of students from Middle Eastern immigrant families rise recently. The school, which also draws students from Pittsford, Greece and other areas, is now providing additional English Language Learner training to its teachers. 
 
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

10/14/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].

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