More students transfer to public schools from private

Mattie Hyder wanted a new experience for her freshman year of high school -- one without uniforms and with a little more freedom.

Which is why the former Episcopal Day School student is now at Westside High School.

"I really wanted to see what public school was like, and I've really enjoyed it so far," she said. "The main difference is that I went from a class of 35 to a class of 300."

Richmond County schools are becoming increasingly enticing to parents with children in private school. There was an 18 percent increase in enrollment of students from private schools in the 2008-2009 school year, with 359 enrolling compared to 305 former private school students enrolled the previous year. Though economics possibly played a factor, public school officials say parents are finding quality.

Westside High School had a graduation rate 7 percent higher than the school system in the 2007 to 2008 school year, with more than 70 percent of seniors graduating, according to the Governor's Office of Student Achievement. Richmond County School board member Alex Howard said schools such as Westside are raising the bar for public schools.

"It may be an adjustment for the children, but the public schools kind of open them up to the real world," he said. "The best part is they're going to get the same level of education."

Westside Principal Tim Spivey said he has noticed almost a 10 percent increase in students coming from Episcopal Day, Augusta Christian and Westminster schools. He said parents who transferred their children from private to public schools are sharing their stories with other parents.

"They tell their friends who are spending $10,000 to $12,000 a year, and they're saying, 'Things are going great for your kids, so why I am spending $12,000?' " Mr. Spivey said.

Jeanne Hyder, Mattie's mother, said because her oldest daughter, Kate, now a senior at Westside, had such a smooth transition from private to public school, she felt confident in enrolling Mattie at Westside last fall. Another family told them about the school's academic program.

"I'm happy with the school academically, socially and with the sports program," Mrs. Hyder said. "She always was around people just like us. Now, she has friends from different faiths, races and socioeconomic groups. It's been a great decision for us."

Lake Forest Hills Elementary is another example of a Richmond County school excelling in academics. The school exceeded district and state averages for achievement and attendance for students in first through fifth grades, according to the Governor's Office of Student Achievement.

Lake Forest Hills Principal Sonya Bailey said she has noticed more parents of private school students taking an interest in Lake Forest Hills.

Pam James Doumar, an Augusta mother of three, heard people praise Lake Forest Hills and decided to check into the school a few months ago. Her 6-year-old twins, Allie and Jackson, have attended Episcopal Day since they were 3.

"We were just overwhelmed by this little school. We just loved it," Mrs. Doumar said. "There's an accountability in public schools to the community they serve. I wanted to be a part of that."

The twins will start first grade at Lake Forest Hills this fall.

Though private school students are increasingly enrolling in county schools, some area private school headmasters say they have not noticed a significant change in their enrollment.

Stephen O'Neil, the headmaster at Westminster, said re-enrollment was going well at his school, which has more than 530 students.

There has been a higher demand for financial aid, he said, with 20 percent of his students receiving some form of assistance.

Ned Murray, Episcopal Day's headmaster, said his school is following the same trend of greater assistance need, but enrollment has not been affected.

The National Association of Independent Schools reports a similar trend, said association spokeswoman Myra McGovern.

"We are cautiously optimistic that enrollment will remain steady," Ms. McGovern said. "It will play out differently depending on the school area."

Mr. Spivey said he hopes private school students will increasingly enter the public school system.

"I think the better we do our jobs in Richmond County the more attractive we'll look to parents from private schools, especially with the economy the way it is."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

GOING PUBLIC

- For the 2008-09 school year, 359 students left area private schools to attend Richmond County public schools, an 18 percent increase from 2007-08.

- The National Association of Independent Schools reported no significant decrease in private school enrollment for 2008-09. However, 18 percent of students received need-based financial aid, a 4.3 percent increase from the 2007-08 school year.

- Nationally, the average range of private school tuition for 2008-09 was $15,250 to $19,475.

Source: Richmond County Board of Education, National Association of Independent Schools

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