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Prized recruits 

The rising competition for high school students in Pulaski County isn’t just a public v. private issue any more.

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The world of private high schools is, at least on the surface, a decorous one. There are theoretically plenty of students to go around, and rules that are supposed to keep schools from actively poaching especially desirable kids from each other. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t happen anyway. Little Rock Christian Academy principal Boyd Chitwood takes the unusually candid step of recounting a specific incident, although he won’t name the student or the other school involved. A certain talented sixth-grade football player received a package in the mail last year after playing a game against another local private school, Chitwood said. The package, sent by a parent, included a picture of the student at the game, along with a note saying how good the boy would look in the other school’s uniform, and an invitation to come talk to folks at the school. “There are some rabid parents who get themselves just as involved [in recruiting] as the U of A,” Chitwood said. “To think of recruiting a sixth-grader is pretty hard, but the temptation is there. That’s the hard part of the relationship among private schools.” The number of Pulaski County private school students in grades 1-12 grew by more than 2,200 between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — an increase of almost 25 percent. The county’s public schools, on the other hand, lost about 3 percent of their students — about 1,500 children — in the same grades. Three new private high schools opened their doors — Little Rock Christian Academy, Episcopal Collegiate School and Lutheran High School. Pulaski Academy and Central Arkansas Christian Schools both had dramatic increases in their high school enrollments in the late 1980s and 1990s. Some administrators say supply is finally starting to achieve equilibrium with demand, and the rapid growth of the 1990s has mostly leveled out. CAC head Carter Lambert said the school’s once-long waiting list has dwindled, and other schools’ officials said their enrollment numbers have stayed flat for the last few years. That could mean private schools may start feeling increased pressure to hold on to the students they have. Even the public schools have clued in to the importance of offering parents choices: Pulaski County’s interdistrict system of magnet schools is probably keeping some families in public schools who otherwise would have gone to private schools, said Suellen Vann, spokeswoman for the Little Rock School District. Little Rock Christian’s Boyd Chitwood said the majority of their new students still come from public schools, but a disproportionately large number come from other private schools. Just about every major private high school in Pulaski County advertises these days, in newspapers, on the radio, in magazines and in private-school directories. That wasn’t the case five years ago. Some of it is keeping up with the Joneses, said Ellis Arnold, headmaster of Pulaski Academy. “You know the other schools are going to do it, so you’re almost afraid not to,” he said. Fran Webb, who handles marketing for Mount St. Mary Academy, said when she started working for the school five years ago, she saw the shift coming. “We knew the landscape was changing,” she said. “We were aware that Episcopal Collegiate was coming, P.A. had always been there, and Lutheran High was getting started, so we knew we were going to have competition, while in previous years, we didn’t.” But she’s able to put a positive spin on it: “I feel like in a way it kind of raised the bar for everybody,” she said. “We had to make sure that what we were doing, we were doing very well.” Webb said she’s noticed a difference in what families are after when they ask for information about St. Mary. “They asked questions about academics before because they were weighing paying tuition against not paying tuition” — in other words, weighing St. Mary versus public schools. “Now it’s because they’re weighing whether to spend their tuition money here or spend their tuition money somewhere else.” Mount St. Mary does still count the public schools as competition, though — especially Central High School, where the feeling appears to be mutual. About three years ago, a billboard in front of St. Mary on Kavanaugh advertised that Central had the highest number of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists in the state. The city’s Catholic schools retaliated with a billboard of their own, pointing out that the combined total of semifinalists at St. Mary and Catholic High was one or two more than Central’s. “We have a really good working relationship with Central,” St. Mary principal Becky Henle said. “[Students] kind of go back and forth. We joke with Nancy [Rousseau, Central’s principal], ‘Oh, we got two of yours this year, you got one of ours.” Little Rock Christian’s Chitwood said he feels the most tension over athletics, and he’s not the only private-school director who said he’s seen sports tip the scales in favor of another campus. “Kids are programmed to think bigger is better,” said Tom Wolbrecht, head of 215-student Lutheran High School, which graduated its first senior class in 2002. Both he and Mercer Neil, new headmaster of Episcopal Collegiate School, said they try to sell their schools’ small sizes as advantages to students who are interested in athletics. “If you want to participate in a lot of interscholastic sports, you may want to consider a school like Episcopal, where participation is not only possible, but probable,” Neil said. “If you’re a 6-11 power forward and you’re looking to jump to the NBA, that might be easier from another school.” Chitwood acknowledges that sports are a major draw at his school, whose far-west location on Highway 10 has plenty of room for athletic fields. “Practically, you have to have the trappings,” he said. “If we didn’t have athletics we wouldn’t be nearly as big as we are. We’ve been able to grow in the features people pay attention to.” P.A., last year’s state champs in football, is perennially plagued by rumors it recruits students for their athletic talents. Arnold said it’s not a practice the school is associated with: “Recruiting of athletes is not something the school encourages or actively participates in,” he said. That, of course, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, unofficially, at P.A. and other private schools. There aren’t any rules against parents having conversations with other parents or students, as Chitwood’s story shows, and Arnold said he’s sure students have left P.A. as well because of “encouragement from others.” If athletics is the hardest part of private schools’ relationships with each other, the easiest is probably agreeing how they differ in key characteristics and missions. Every head of school interviewed for this story was quick to point out that their school didn’t duplicate any other school, and they’re in large part right. No two high schools are affiliated with the same religious denomination, although some are close. There are differences in geography, from Episcopal Collegiate on the edge of downtown to Little Rock Christian in far West Little Rock. And there’s a fairly wide variance in what Chitwood called academic ambition — how high-achieving a school requires its incoming students to be. Still, groups of two or three schools have evolved as close competitors, and there is a good amount of student-swapping among them. Lutheran High, for example, set up shop near Midtown, not far from Catholic and St. Mary, which until relatively recently were the only private high schools east of I-430. Wolbrecht said he’s taken in more than one student who was kicked out of Catholic. “Sifting through those I’ve gotten some gems,” he said. Lutheran High is a natural destination for students graduating from K-8 Christ Lutheran, which had customarily fed into Catholic and St. Mary’s. Lutheran now gets about half its class each year from Christ Lutheran, Wolbrecht said. But the progression isn’t automatic, he said. “We still fight the tradition of kids going to Catholic and St. Mary’s,” he said, and at least some are going for the sports programs. St. Mary has walked a fine line on their side of that fight. The school’s admissions staff had always made recruiting trips to Christ Lutheran, but stopped when Lutheran High opened “out of respect for people who are trying to do the same thing we’re trying to do,” Henle said. St. Mary’s enrollment has held steady at about 550 students for years, Henle said. But Catholic is a different story: enrollment is down about 12 percent from a decade ago, principal Mike Rockers said, although it rebounded a little this year. Part of the problem is that enrollment in Central Arkansas’s nine Catholic elementary schools — the source of about 70 percent of Catholic’s students — has been down, Rockers said. “The other reason is the reality of a lot of different options for parents out there,” he said — including some public schools. “We lose kids to Central that 10 years ago we may not have,” he said. All of that has pushed Catholic to start banging their drum a little more, most visibly in frequent newspaper ads. “With people moving into the area, the awareness of our presence here in Little Rock and the quality programs we have may not be there for those people,” he said. And he’s baffled by suggestions that any boy would choose Catholic for its athletics. “We don’t do well in the major sports,” he said. “Our recent history is not good. We were 5-5 [in football] last year, and P.A. was state champ. We were happy with 5-5.” In minor sports like tennis, baseball and golf, though, Catholic consistently wins. Catholic also has 75 years of tradition on its side, as well as the cheapest tuition by far of any of Pulaski County’s accredited private high schools: $2,450 for Catholics and $3,500 for non-Catholics. Lutheran comes in at $5,500, and Episcopal Collegiate and Pulaski Academy top the list at about $7,500. Out west, Little Rock Christian has emerged as Pulaski Academy’s closest competitor and the city’s hottest private high school. The conservative, non-denominational school — formerly Walnut Valley Christian — has been around since 1980, but began adding high school grades in the mid-1990s. It consistently grows about 15 percent each year, Chitwood said. Its first graduating class had four students; this year’s numbers over 100. The school’s focused on raising its academic reputation, and Chitwood said that isn’t always welcomed by other private schools. “Among other school leaders, they see us as kind of stepping out, and they’re not real pleased with that because it puts more pressure on them,” he said “We’ve done more ads lately — not directly competitive, but more informative. We don’t mind someone coming to us from another school if they’re coming for what we are” and not running away from something they don’t like. When parents are choosing between Little Rock Christian and one other school, it’s usually P.A., Chitwood said. “What we’re similar in is academic standards,” he said. “We’re looking at where do we get kids accepted to college, how many National Merit semifinalists we have, what our SAT scores are. We definitely don’t want to make any spiritual excuse for an academic deficit. By and large, any academic standard someone wants to set, we’ll go for it. We think that brings glory to God.” Episcopal Collegiate School, an outgrowth of the old and established K-5 Cathedral School, has set itself up as an academically elite institution as well, but its growth has been nothing like Little Rock Christian’s — and headmaster Neil said he’s fine with that, even if others associated with the school might disagree. “It depends on who you ask” whether Episcopal’s enrollment is high enough, says Neil. “We still would like to grow some. There’s a critical mass you need to have a core of programs, but by the same token I really don’t see Episcopal falling into the category of the largest nonsectarian independent schools in the South. I’m not an advocate of large schools.” Episcopal serves grades 6-12, and graduated its first senior class last spring. Its high school enrollment is 197. The school’s young enough that it’s still trying to establish an identity in the community, Neil said. “We’re still working on it,” he said. “There’s a branding issue.” Whatever manner informal recruitment at private schools does take place, it’s not just of promising athletes. The other hot commodity at most non-public schools is minority students; a 15 percent minority population is considered good at most schools. Episcopal Collegiate made a visible and widespread effort to boost its minority population this year with the addition of 42 “diversity scholarships,” tuition breaks awarded to high-achieving minority students, many of whom had been attending public schools. The school’s parents raised or donated the money for the scholarships, said Suzanne Nagy, director of admissions. Nagy said she can’t ethically approach families herself, but knows Episcopal parents have encouraged high-achieving black students they know about to contact her. There’s concern within the public school community that efforts like Episcopal’s hurt public schools by skimming the cream off the top of their minority student bodies. Losing the smartest minority students makes the achievement gap between white and non-white students in public schools even wider. Chitwood said his school’s had less success than Episcopal in getting minority students, even though they’re eligible for up to a 95 percent reduction in tuition. Location is one problem, he said — far northwest Little Rock isn’t exactly in the heart of whatever melting pot Little Rock may have. He’s talked with pastors at black churches about sending vans to pick up groups of students in distant neighborhoods, but so far hasn’t made much progress. And he knows that part of the problem is that it’s hard to convince minority students to attend a school with so few other minority students. “We’ve made some headway, and then fallen back,” Chitwood said. “We’ve tried to ask tactical questions about what the barriers are: Is it just implicit racism? I can’t say it’s not, but I think there are things like a critical mass, where there’s a level of comfort, some sense of community.” Webb said Mount St. Mary has been paying close attention to the growth of the largely Catholic Hispanic community, and commits to taking any girl who wants to attend the school. About 25 percent of students get some financial aid — a large number compared with other Central Arkansas private schools. It’s impossible to tell what the future holds for area private schools, Chitwood said. Despite the enormous growth in enrollment since 1990, he doesn’t take anything for granted. “The public market is still the primary educational market,” he said. “The private school market remains relatively unstable. There’s not a strong and growing group of parents who are looking for a private school education.” There are certain hot-button issues that will send periodic waves of students out of public schools, he said, “but we don’t have a lot of parents who just want to put kids through a prep school education generation after generation.” There’s also the economy to consider: several years of lean times have taken their toll on private school enrollment, several school leaders said. From that standpoint, the pool of potential private school students is finite — even families who get some financial aid usually still have to pay a significant amount of tuition. That’s one reason Chitwood said he thinks Little Rock Christian gets so many students from other private schools. “If you can afford one private school, you can afford another,” he said. Only a couple of school leaders — Catholic’s Rockers and Lutheran’s Wolbrecht — admitted to wishing for more students, but flat enrollment at other schools doesn’t necessarily just mean they’ve decided not to grow any larger regardless of demand. “Probably everybody would like to have a few more students,” St. Mary’s Henle said. “I really hope it doesn’t become really competitive and aggressive.”
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