Financial aid up at Southern California private schools

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

The proportion of enrolled students receiving financial aid at Sinai Akiba Academy has doubled in the last few years. Administrators at the private Jewish day school near UCLA have ramped up fundraising to meet requests as more families say they can't afford the private school.

The fiscal problems of public schools have gotten plenty of air time, but private K-12 schools in Southern California have also had to trim their budgets. The prolonged economic downturn has many private school staffs wondering how long they can hold on.

This was a tough school year for public and private schools. Maintenance, clerical and support staffs at private schools have diminished, said Jim McManus, head of the 200-member California Association of Independent Schools. "About two years ago when the economy was cratering, every school in the association looked very hard and in new ways at their budgets and trimmed whatever they felt were non-essential expenses," he said.

The economy’s forced three Southland private schools to shut their doors in the last year, McManus said, while others have laid off employees. Some private schools depend on summer courses to raise money while others appeal to donors a second or third time to raise cash.

Private schools depend heavily on tuition. At the top Los Angeles private high schools, that can cost about $30,000 a year. The economy’s pushing more enrolled families to ask for financial aid – and more than usual are getting that help from the schools.

"We increased our financial aid budget by 25 percent over the past years," said Buckley School director Larry Dougherty, "because we want to do everything we can to complete the schooling of families who’ve been here for several years and we want to maintain economic diversity of our school."

Kindergarten through fifth grade tuition at the 770-student Sherman Oaks school is $26,000 a year; it’s $4,000 more for the upper grades. Financial aid, he said, ensures the student body isn’t entirely made up of the super-rich.

At Sinai Akiba Academy near UCLA almost 20 percent of the school’s $10 million operating budget goes to financial aid. About a quarter of the school’s kindergarten through eighth grade students receive breaks on tuition – that’s double from a few years ago.

Lee Wallach’s children are two of them. After his court reporting business dropped off by half, he and his wife considered pulling their kids out of Sinai Akiba. "Last year and this year was not much better – we were enrolled, actually, in public schools until, both years Sinai Akiba staff were able to come to us with some additional assistance," Wallach said.

Administrators at this school became alarmed about a year ago as two dozen families said they'd be leaving because of personal finances. Annual tuition at Sinai Akiba is more than $18,000 a year, so losing those families would have punched a big hole in the school’s budget.

Administrators reason that offering subsidies is better than losing 100 percent of what parents can pay. But that’s not the most important reason the school is helping families, said the school's Admissions Director Barbara Goodhill. It’s part of the school’s mission.

"For many of these parents this is something that’s more than just a school, you know, it’s a connection to a community that matters a great deal to them. So they will come to us in tears, then come back to us in tears, if it works out and their children are able to come," Goodhill said.

Lee Wallach said the school’s generosity humbled him. "It is financial aid, and to tell you the truth, I did not foresee a time when I would have to not support the school and actually take from the school, and accept gifts from the school, so that was difficult. They have a wonderful education here, it was a wonderful opportunity for us, but it was one we couldn’t do on our own anymore."

This ethos of inclusiveness is particularly strong among Jewish private schools, said McManus of the California Association of Independent Schools, and that could unravel some of them if the economy doesn’t improve. "I have heard of schools that normally might have, for example 25–35 percent of their students receiving financial aid, looking at scenarios where 50–75 percent of the families now need it, and that’s an unsustainable figure to be able to support over time," he said.

For the time being every private school – religious and non-sectarian – is stepping up its fundraising and marketing game. McManus said some campuses have had success recruiting well-off families so upset with public school budget cuts that they’re forking out private school tuition for their sons and daughters.

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