When most local public-school systems settled into virtual-only instruction for fall 2020 in response to the spread of COVID-19, some local parents looked to area private schools as a haven to keep their kids learning in-person.
That kicked off an application and enrollment spike for the Richmond private school scene that, at least for some schools, has yet to wane.
School leaders reported that gains made have been maintained as newcomers decided to stay, even as in-person instruction returned to public schools.
St. Christopher’s School in the West End saw enrollment growth in the last few years and expects to have 1,001 students the first day of school later this month. In addition to increased enrollment, the school has likewise seen more applications and a better ratio of admission offers extended and accepted.
“I think what we are seeing is high marks on all three of those metrics. Not only are we seeing increased interest but also applications and a higher percentage of families that accept offers,” said St. Christopher’s spokeswoman Sharon Dion.
Dion said the school considers itself maxed out on capacity at 1,000 students. It had a little under 990 students in the last school year, and generally hovers around that enrollment number annually. At the start of the 2019-2020 academic year, the school had 960 students.
“We don’t want to grow exponentially. We consider ourselves today, with the current structure of the program, that we are full,” she said.
Dion said there were waitlists at almost every grade level of boys-only junior kindergarten to 12th grade school. And while there was enrollment growth across the school, the lower school was an area of notable increase. The school has added a fourth section of second-grade home room in the coming school year to accommodate new students.
“We have heard from a number of families who said they were planning to explore St. Christopher’s later in their child’s educational journey, but COVID resulted in a shift in priorities and a desire to explore St. Christopher’s sooner, especially since current families are having a positive experience and the admissions landscape is becoming increasingly competitive,” Dion said. “Historically, private schools, just given the costs, some segment of parents would wait to make that investment until the child was in middle or upper school.”
St. Christopher’s found that boys who were enrolled during the pandemic stuck around even as public schools returned to regular operations.
“Obviously, I wish I had a crystal ball but I think the indicator that makes us feel like this is a continued trend is our general attrition rate this year in particular was one of our record lows,” she said.
Collegiate School, a co-ed school in the West End, likewise has continued to experience strong interest from the families of prospective students more recently after a spike early in the pandemic. Without much room to add new students in fall 2020, the effect was a more competitive process rather than an enrollment increase, said Scott Smith, the school’s director of admission and enrollment management.
“We were at capacity before the pandemic with increased interest that led to greater demand and a more competitive kind of application process, which I think was the case for a number of independent schools in Richmond,” Smith said. “We had significant interest in inquiries and applicants and with a limited number of spots that led to a more selective admission process, not that we intended that necessarily.”
Collegiate anticipates 1,685 students to be enrolled at the school at the start of the 2022-2023 academic year. In the fall of 2019, it had 1,667 students enrolled.
Smith said that the ratio of offers-to-acceptances increased the yield of students in the early period of the pandemic, and the school had several grade levels that were larger than what is considered optimal, triggering the expansion of staff accordingly. Smith said the yield rate continued to be higher than usual in the last couple years.
At the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, the school had 1,696 students, which was larger than anticipated due to the increased admission yield rate, Smith said.
Smith said the prospect of in-class instruction early in the pandemic drove increased interest in private schools among families that may not have considered private education in normal times.
Looking forward, Smith suggested a result of the pandemic-era spike in interest is a pool of local families that couldn’t get their children into private schools but are now familiar with private schools as an option they could revisit in the coming years.
“I think a byproduct of this will be more families understanding this is an educational opportunity for their children even if it didn’t come to fruition,” he said.
Collegiate and St. Christopher’s are historically among the top three largest private schools by student population in the Richmond area. The third member of that trio, St. Catherine’s School, declined to comment for this story.
Steward School is another local private school that has seen a continuation of heightened interest but has reached its capacity of 700 students.
“The pandemic for us was an accelerant to the trends we were already seeing. Pre-pandemic we were already growing at around 8 percent a year and that has held, and we are now full and have been full at 700 for the past two years,” Head of School Dan Frank said. “The number we’re at is the biggest the school will ever get.”
Other factors beyond just COVID may be driving the continued interest in private schools.
Benedictine Schools of Richmond President Jesse Grapes said recent cultural debates, such as the contents of schools’ libraries among other points of controversy, have sustained the increased interest in Benedictine College Preparatory and Saint Gertrude High School that started early in the pandemic and has continued into the present.
“Some of that is due to COVID and how schools responded to COVID with their in-person or distance learning strategies, but also the cultural movements have really generated more parent interest in what’s being taught in schools beyond math and science but also from a moral perspective,” he said.
Benedictine, a military high school for boys, and Saint Gertrude, a girls-only high school, merged into a single organization in early 2020 though instruction is still separated by sex. Saint Gertrude vacated its Museum District facilities that year and moved to the Benedictine campus in Goochland County.
The schools expect a total fall enrollment of 500 students. At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, they had just under 450 students.
The schools had nearly 490 students at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year.
Grapes estimated more than 90 percent of students who came from public schools and who enrolled at the schools due to the pandemic have stayed put.
“By and large those families have stayed. They found something in our offering they found really attractive,” he said.
The Catholic Diocese of Richmond’s eight schools in its self-defined Richmond Region have likewise seen continued interest from prospective students since 2020.
“We saw a significant increase in inquiries and applications in the summer of 2020. We’re encouraged. We’ve seen that sustained volume of interest and applications continue,” Enrollment Management Coordinator Pamela Wray said.
The diocese’s eight schools in the Richmond Region are: All Saints Catholic School, Blessed Sacrament Huguenot School, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, Saint Benedict Catholic School, Saint Bridget Catholic School, St. Edward-Epiphany, Saint Joseph Catholic School and St. Mary’s Catholic School.
The eight schools had more than 2,700 students at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. In fall 2020, the schools had an enrollment of 2,500 students.
Other local private schools have likewise experienced continued growth and anticipate larger student bodies in the upcoming fall.
Veritas School in Northside expects to have 655 students this fall. Last spring it had 640 students, and the school is reaching its capacity, Director of Admissions Gretchen Gregory said in an email.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year, Veritas had 618 students.
Blessed Sacrament Huguenot School saw an enrollment surge during the pandemic that has continued into the present. In June, the school expects to have a fall enrollment of 400 students. It had about 370 students in the spring, up from 270 students in spring 2020. The school, which is in Powhatan County, has capital projects in the works as a result.
Cristo Rey, which recently paid $6.8 million for the former Benedictine building in the Museum District, expects to see its enrollment grow from 190 students to 250 students for this school year.
Here are enrollment numbers for some of the private schools:
St. Christopher’s School
Fall 2022 enrollment: 1,001 students (anticipated)
Fall 2019 enrollment: 960 students
Percentage change: 4.3 percent
Tuition 2022-2023: $18,100-$27,325 (Lower), $29,100 (Middle), $30,950 (Upper)
Fall 2022 enrollment: 1,685 students (anticipated)
Fall 2019 enrollment: 1,667 students
Percentage change: 1.1 percent
Tuition 2022-2023: $17,660-$24,450 (Lower), $27,580 (Middle), $29,630 (Upper)
Fall 2022 enrollment: 700 students (anticipated)
Fall 2019 enrollment: 670 students
Percentage change: 4.5 percent
Tuition 2022-2023: $18,160-$25,700 (Lower), $27,670 (Middle), $29,200 (Upper)
Benedictine Schools of Richmond
Fall 2022 enrollment: 500 students (anticipated)
Fall 2019 enrollment: 450 students
Percentage change: 11 percent
Tuition 2022-2023: $21,900
Fall 2022 enrollment: 655 students (anticipated)
Fall 2019 enrollment: 618 students
Percentage change: 6 percent
Tuition 2022-2023: $13,335-$14,060 (K-6), $14,760 (grades 7-12)