Private School Classroom

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / August 24, 2008

Private high schools north of Boston are getting a tough lesson in economics.

Costs for fuel and supplies are rising. Enrollments are steady, but more students are also applying for financial assistance to pay hefty tuition bills. St. Mary’s High School in Lynn – where the $6,900 tuition is the least expensive in the region – received a record $800,000 in requests for aid for this school year.

“That’s significantly higher than last year,” said Ray Bastarache, head of the 575-student school. “We do the best we can, but we can’t give what we don’t have.”

The Governor’s Academy in Byfield – whose $41,300 bill for tuition, room, and board is the costliest in the region – had only a 2 percent increase in financial aid requests. But the 370-student school is able to offer financial help to just 25 percent of the student body, admissions director Peter Bidstrup said.

Costly choices
Area private school tuitions
School Location Tuition
Bishop Fenwick Peabody $10,000
Governor’s Academy Byfield $32,600*
Malden Catholic Malden $9.850
Our Lady of Nazarethg Academy Wakefield $10,750
Pingree Hamilton $30,500
Pope John XXIII Everett $8,000
St. Mary’s Lynn $6,900
Sparhawk Salisbury $18,300
Waring Beverly $23,337
*Day students, $41,300 for boarders
SOURCE: School websites, admissions offices

“We’re not need-blind, and very few schools are,” he said. “For a school of our size, to meet the full financial needs of the students who apply we’d have to double or triple our financial [aid pool] and that’s just not feasible.”

The demand for financial help has forced independent and Catholic high schools across the region to sharpen their pencils to control costs.

Tuition increases have been limited, in part to help maintain enrollment in a shaky economy. Spending has been prioritized, prompting some schools to delay capital repairs or cut staff. They have also had to scramble for new scholarship dollars to meet soaring demand for tuition assistance.

Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody gave out 35 percent more in financial aid for this school year than last year.

“We raised more funds specifically for financial aid,” said Bruce Gordon, finance director at the 610-student Catholic school. “We understand that some of our families can’t afford the tuition, but really do want to send their kids.”

At Waring School in Beverly, a small grade 6-12 school where tuition costs $23,337 this year, requests for financial aid are up 17 percent over last year, admissions director Dorothy Wang said.

“It’s very difficult now for families,” Wang said. “Many would love to send their children here, but then they think about the economy, and some really have to ponder and decide whether this is the route to go.”

St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers and Malden Catholic High School – all-male, private Catholic schools run by the Xaverian Brothers – have strong enrollments. St. John’s had 1,200 applications for this year’s freshman class of 328 students, for example. Malden Catholic will have 676 students this year, an increase of about 20 students, many of them from Korea. Strong enrollment shows that private education can weather economic hardship, administrators said.

“When parents and families are making spending decisions, education isn’t seen as a luxury item,” said Ed Hardiman, principal at St. John’s. “It’s seen as a priority.”

Said Brother Thomas Puccio, interim headmaster at Malden Catholic, “I think people do recognize their son’s education is a great long-term investment.”

Neither school would disclose the amount of financial aid requests, or totals awarded. At St. John’s last year, the median package was $6,900, Hardiman said. “We try to make the Prep as accessible to as many families as possible,” he said. “We recognize we’re in an economic downturn.”

Malden Catholic awards financial aid to 61 percent of its students, Puccio said. The school, which will charge $9,850 for tuition this year, also tries to keep increases minimal. “We try to keep tuition down to below $10,000,” he said. “I guess it’s a little bit of a psychological thing. . . . Families today face many pressures.”

Pope John XXIII High School in Everett is aggressively pursuing new sources of financial aid. The 315-student school, which opened 40 years ago, does not have a large enough alumni base, said Kathleen Donovan, school president.

“Our graduates aren’t old enough yet to be in a position to help us,” said Donovan, a retired Arlington public schools superintendent. “They’re just putting their own children into colleges. It will take us a little while.”

St. Mary’s High School in Lynn – which opened a $20 million academic wing three years ago – is also targeting alumni donors. The school held a reception at last week’s Red Sox-Orioles game at Camden Yards in Baltimore for about 30 graduates living there. “We have very generous benefactors,” said Bastarache, a retired Lynn public schools administrator. “But we need to increase our donor base. . . . We want to provide as much [financial aid] to our neediest families as we can.” Toni Sloan, a single mother of three from Lynn, is paying her first tuition to St. Mary’s High School. Her daughter, Devaney, has transferred for sophomore year from Lynn English High School. “That school was too big and overwhelming for her,” said Sloan, 44. “I thought a smaller school would make her focus more on college.”

Sloan, who runs a home-based day-care, couldn’t afford the $6,900 tuition bill, plus books and fees. Her parents are helping pay tuition, she said. “Thank God for grandparents,” said Sloan, 44. “I couldn’t do it on my own. It’s scary for me to be doing this.”

Devaney, an honors student and cheerleader, is worth the investment, her mother said.

“It’s a pretty penny,” Sloan said. “But I believe it will be worth every cent.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at [email protected].

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