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Why private schools are growing again in St. Louis after years of decline

After several years of steady decline, enrollment at St. Louis-area private and parochial schools began trending upward in 2020.

ST. LOUIS — Living Water Academy had long considered adding a high school to its offerings.

Until this year, the private Christian school in Wildwood offered only pre-K through 8th grade classes. But a surge in interest from parents seeking private schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic sparked a more sustained increase in demand, making now the right time to expand.

This year, Living Water added 9th grade to its curriculum. By 2025, it will have added 10th through 12th grades to the mix.

The school is not alone in meeting increased demand. 

After several years of steady decline, enrollment at St. Louis-area private and parochial schools began trending upward in 2020, a trend that continues into this year, according to a Business Journal analysis.

Between 2012 and 2019, cumulative enrollment declined 1% per year on average for 34 private schools for which the Business Journal had 10 years of enrollment data. This resulted in a total enrollment decline of 11% between 2012 and 2019. 

But between 2020 and 2021, enrollment at those schools increased by 1.2%, then another 2.1% between 2021 and 2022.

The trend becomes even clearer when looking at the 25 largest private primary schools, which in 2022 reported enrollment figures that were 14.3% higher than in 2019. Meanwhile, the 25 largest secondary schools saw 1.5% growth over 2019.

K-6 enrollment at Living Water Academy increased 20% last year to reach 150 students, up from 125 in 2021. 

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Cynthia Jenkins, Living Water's head of school, said a big growth driver was COVID-19 lockdowns, which prompted most public schools to shift to remote learning. That prompted some families to consider options that would keep their kids physically in the classroom.

“Originally, parents were looking to private education because we remained open (during COVID-19 shutdowns) when a lot of the public schools were not able to,” said Jenkins. “However, I think after seeing what we had to offer and seeing their children thriving in our environment, many who had originally thought we were a temporary solution, chose to stay with us. And not only did they choose to stay, but they began recommending us to their friends and family.”

But not all private schools are growing.

Last week, the Archdiocese of St. Louis announced the closure of Rosati-Kain and St. Mary’s high schools at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. This comes after years of struggles at some Catholic private schools, including temporary closures due to contract negotiations and falling enrollment.

Click here to read the full story from the St. Louis Business Journal.

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