Arlington’s private schools say they are still riding a wave of enrollment increases that started early in the pandemic.
More than three years ago now, Covid lockdowns shut down schools, which reverted to distance learning. That fall, however, local private schools affiliated with a church or the Catholic Diocese of Arlington reopened their doors while Arlington Public Schools continued with virtual learning for most students for the better part of the 2020-21 school year.
While some APS families relied on virtual learning, even after the shutdowns, other parents urged for a faster return to in-person learning. Some in this camp enrolled their children in local private schools, confirmed by their rising figures and a steep drop among some public elementary schools, particularly in North Arlington.
Three years later, growth continues at some of these schools, albeit at a slower pace, with high retention rates among those who transferred during Covid.
“We’ve been holding pretty steady,” says Lori Bodling, the office administrator for Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Barcroft. “We’ve kept most of the families — a few moved out or went back to public schools, but the majority who came to us during Covid times have stayed.”
This is not, however, the only enrollment story and families who made the switch due to Covid considerations do not wholly explain the changes. As the long-term effects of the pandemic on education reveal themselves, one school leader says a small — but growing — group of students with anxiety, school avoidance and academic struggles are opting for non-public options in Arlington.
APS, meanwhile, projects to recover from the Covid slump and continue seeing a steady growth in enrollment that began in 2006. It is preparing, however, for downward pressure on enrollment starting in 2025, due, in part, to falling birth rates.
Rising enrollment in private schools
Both Our Savior Lutheran School and Arlington’s Catholic schools saw enrollment suddenly jump in the early years of Covid that has since slowed down.
“The uptick you saw at St. Thomas More Cathedral School and St. Ann [was] more pandemic-related,” says Renee Quiros White, the Assistant Superintendent of Catholic Identity, Enrollment & Marketing for the diocese. “In other words, they had the space to accommodate additional students.”
White adds that retention percentages have remained high, at 88% for both 2021 and 2022, suggesting families who changed schools have mostly stayed on.
Two remaining Catholic schools did not have these growth spurts. St. Agnes, another school for preschool through eighth grade, increased 6% at the start of the pandemic and has since remained steady while enrollment Bishop O’Connell High School has been in decline since 2020. Both were considered “full” prior to the pandemic, says White, noting “you wouldn’t necessarily see a big increase” as a result.
White says the growth in Arlington tracks with the predicted population growth tracked by the U.S. Census and population estimates from the University of Virginia. The diocese is seeing a third straight year of overall enrollment increases, with an average increase of 10% since 2020.
“Enrollment numbers can vary from year to year, due to a number of factors,” she wrote. “Regardless of the reason(s), we are very pleased that so many families have sought a Catholic education for their children and have become part of our communities.”
New needs among students
Meanwhile, a private school recognized as non-traditional option for middle- and high-school-aged students is also reporting an enrollment uptick.
The Sycamore School caters to students who may be gifted but have learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD or autism, or just need a more interactive, nurturing environment. Founder Karyn Ewart says she is seeing students who struggle with executive functioning skills and anxiety, were bullied or “felt invisible” or were simply “bored and disengaged.”
“We’re seeing parents seek alternative placements because their child is struggling and may even be in crisis — they are refusing to go to school or have had such an adverse experience that they can’t ignore it any longer,” says Ewart. “Many students require some level of remediation and counseling support.”
What began as just a middle school with 14 students now has middle and high-school grades, and is projected to have at least 70 students by the end of October. Sixty percent hail from Arlington, with most others elsewhere in Northern Virginia though some families come from Maryland and D.C.
“This past year was the first year we didn’t have a downtime for admissions,” she said. “We have rolling admissions and have had consistent interest throughout the year since Spring of 2022. Before then, we saw more of an ebb and flow, depending on the time of year.”
APS makes a comeback but projects long-term declines
While enrollment in APS dropped 4% in 2020, it is now largely recovering. Almost all the elementary schools that dropped precipitously during the pandemic are registering gains.
Between September 2019 and September 2022, Ashlawn, Arlington Science Focus, Long Branch, Taylor, Jamestown, Tuckahoe and Nottingham elementary schools saw overall enrollment drops between 15-25%. All of those schools, save Jamestown, have buoyed by enrollment upticks from 2021 to 2022.
Williamsburg Middle School saw a comparable drop in enrollment from September 2019-22, at nearly 19%. Most other middle schools saw slight decreases under 10%, while Arlington’s high schools have seen relatively consistent growth despite the pandemic.
APS is projecting a return to pre-pandemic levels for this school year, followed by modest gains through 2027. But then another decline starts, driven by lower local birthrates: a gentle decrease through 2032, at which point enrollment could return to levels seen in 2020.
While census data and other state population estimates forecast a growing population, other projections show more minimal changes at the student level.
Elementary grades are projected to grow in the short term and contract the most in the long term, amid the falling birth rates.
“U.S. fertility rates have been declining since 2007, due to women delaying childbirth until later in life and as a result having fewer children,” the school system previously told ARLnow. “The number of births have fallen across Virginia and were first experienced in the rural parts of the state in the late 2000s. During this same time, Northern Virginia experienced less of a decline in births.”
More recently, Northern Virginia has slowed down with the rest of the state as births “fell from an all-time high to its lowest level since 2000, when the region’s population was a third smaller than today,” APS said.
The preceding reporting was supported by the ARLnow Press Club. Join today to support in-depth local reporting, help fund FOIA requests, and to get an exclusive morning email previewing the day’s news coverage.
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