THE GROWTH EQUATION

by: Lauren Coffey, Tampa Bay Business Journal
One minute after Tampa's Jesuit High School opened its application process for the fall 2022 semester, admissions director Steve Matesich received 19 submissions. Alvanita Hope, Director of Enrollment Management at St. Petersburg-based Shorecrest Preparatory School, had a dozen missed calls recently from interested parents after stepping away from her desk for five minutes.

Private schools across the Tampa Bay region have seen a massive admissions influx in the last 18 months, first kicked off with the Covid-19 pandemic. But one of the main draws of private schools is their smaller school size. It puts the schools in a dual-edged sword situation of choosing to accept a higher volume of students, and the money that comes with them, or maintaining the tight-knit community that made them attractive in the first place.

The Demand

When asked anecdotally, local private and independent school admissions officers could not pinpoint a dominant reason for the increase in interest. There's the uptick from Tampa Bay's population growth over the last few years. They also received a major boost during the Covid-19 pandemic when many private schools stayed in-person while public schools across the nation pivoted to a virtual format.

"They're moving to the area and they see independent schools and the benefits that they didn't before — and one of those is connections," said Jay Lasley, director of admissions at Tampa's Berkeley Preparatory School. "We were able to be in-person all year long and had no outbreaks."

The smaller class sizes afford the perk of being able to more nimbly mitigate the spread of Covid-19. While coronavirus numbers dipped at one point, the newly emerged Delta variant — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported spreads more easily than the original strain of the virus, specifically with children — has come onto the scene. This has caused parents, officials say, to once again consider a school with a smaller population.

"When Delta has been raging, our call level has been going exponential; but we've been set [on students] for five months," said Pam Doherty, director of admissions at Academy of the Holy Names. "I think you’ll find 90% of people calling are looking for an in right now. And I could list one or two [schools] that have opportunities and could pass you on to them, but most of us have been set since the spring."
Just how much demand these schools will receive remains to be seen, due to their unique admissions cycles. Many of the schools close their applications for the coming fall in the spring, meaning most families that wanted to attend the school due to Covid-19 concerns started at the school this August.

In the last year, Tampa Catholic Principal Robert Lees said the school added 44 spots spread across 3 grades.

"We always want to accommodate students coming from Catholic schools and keep them if possible," he said. "But it can't increase much more, based on our capacity. We could build more buildings and grow the school, but it's not in our mission."

The Budget Impact

With the increase of students comes a welcome uptick in money, but that also becomes a balancing act. Tampa Catholic's extra 44 students, for example, required three additional teachers. Shorecrest Preparatory School hired "a few" additional teachers to help with online schooling, for those unable to attend in-person due to medical reasons or quarantining.

"The fact of the matter is with more students comes more staffing, and that's the biggest chunk of the budget," Lees said. "We have to add more infrastructure and programs; that costs money. I want more students, don't get me wrong, but it's still something you have to be on top of."

With Shorecrest, which has a more flexible admissions timeline and the ability to add up to 300 more students in the coming years, there's also the issue of paying for measures, such as sanitation precautions, to keep Covid-19 at bay.
"It's definitely additional revenue, so we're using that to provide experiences and services for our students," said Nancy Spencer, Shorecrest's head of school. "As with every school though, Covid has increased costs. And we're not growing just to get more kids. We're looking for mission-aligned kids; that's what drives our admissions growth."

Spencer added a possible benefit of the uptick is the potential to bolster financial aid funds that could allow a more diverse group of children to attend school.
"The next real investment will be the endowment and investing in people and programs versus facilities," she said. "One of my goals is to invest in people and increase our financial aid. I'm not sure the additional students will be at play — families contribute when they have an experience they feel is worthwhile. It's not about additional students, but making sure all the students have that experience." 

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Shorecrest Preparatory School is a private, non-sectarian, coeducational, college preparatory day school for students preschool through high school, located in St. Petersburg, Florida.