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Recession Fuels Shift to Public Schools

When the family budget started feeling the recession's pinch last year, Angela Allyn and her photographer husband, Matt Dinnerstein, pulled their three kids out of Chicago-area private schools and into the Evanston, Ill., public schools.

It has been a challenging transition: Maya, 16, now a high school sophomore, "doesn't like crowds - and her high school is as big as a small college," her mother says. Though Maya is learning a lot in the "amazing" science program, she's also hoping to leave the crowds behind by doubling up on coursework, graduating by the end of junior year "and then going and doing interesting things," Allyn says. Her younger children face their own challenges, from bullying to sheer boredom.

The transition also has been an education for Maya's parents, who say they had "no choice" in the struggling economy but to switch to public schools.

They're saving about $20,000 a year in tuition, but like many former private-school families, they're coming face-to-face with larger class sizes and the public school bureaucracy as they push to get services for their children.

"We ask a lot of questions - we follow up on things," says Allyn, a former professional dancer who's the cultural arts coordinator for the city of Evanston. "We contact the school board. . . . We'll challenge teachers, we'll challenge coordinators. My kids are mortified because they don't want to be singled out."

It's too early to tell whether the recession has had a profound effect on public schools' educational mission. But parents and educators across the nation say it's already bringing subtle changes to the culture of many public schools as some families seek the personal attention they received from private schools.

Private-school parents typically find that the structure of public schools takes some getting used to. In most states, funding for public schools is calculated on a per-student basis, based on average student counts during the first few weeks of the school year. If a student drops out after 40 days, the funding that student generated stays with the school - even if he or she does not return to that campus.

Private schools, on the other hand, risk losing tuition payments once a student leaves.

"Private schools tend to treat you more like a customer than the public schools," Allyn says. Public schools are "going to get their tax dollars whether or not you as a parent are upset. If you're in a private school and you yank your kid out, that's a lot of money walking out the (private school's) door."

Enrollment figures for the current school year won't be available until next year, but the U.S. Department of Education's latest estimate finds that from 2006 to 2009, public school enrollment grew by nearly a half-million students, or about 1%, while private school enrollment dropped by about 146,000, or 2.5(PERCENT).

Government projections find that private schools could lose an additional 28,000 students this year, while public schools should gain 246,000.

Actually, the trend could be worse, says Thomas Toch of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington. Private schools "have weathered the first year of the downturn pretty well by providing more financial aid to families - and in a few cases significantly more financial aid," he says.

"Whether or not that model is sustainable is unclear."

A boost for public schools?

Stories about how the troubled economy is hurting public schools are plentiful these days: Many schools are cutting teaching positions and programs. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the USA's second-largest, laid off 2,000 teachers last spring and may need to lay off 5,000 more employees - including 1,500 teachers - next fall.

But could the recession benefit public schools in the end by bringing in a new clientele?

"In a way, it's a good thing for public schools," says New York University education professor Pedro Noguera. "I would say it's a good time for public schools to pitch the value they bring to middle-class parents."

He's starting to see the effects on the public system in New York City as affluent parents in parts of Brooklyn switch their children from private to public schools and in the process push the public schools to improve.

"College-educated parents are not going to subject their kids to second-class education," he says. So their influx "absolutely has a huge impact," whether it's by volunteering in classrooms or campaigning for more funding.

Most years, public schools rarely see more than a few new students as families come and go. Last fall at Thomas Johnson Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore, 60 new students showed up - about half of those from private schools, including a nearby Catholic school that closed in the spring because of dwindling enrollment.

James Dendinger, Johnson's principal, scrambled to accommodate them all, adding more lockers and an extra fourth-grade class, among other moves.

He also noticed that many families who in previous years would have started their kids in private schools' pre-kindergarten or kindergarten programs were applying to Johnson. Interest in those slots was so intense that he had to freeze new admissions from outside the neighborhood.

Since then, Dendinger has seen participation in Johnson's parent-teacher organization (PTO) grow - the group staged the school's first "fall festival" in five years as a fundraiser. "They're getting very involved," Dendinger says of the new parents.

Among the new students: first-grader Miles Donovan, who attended preschool at the recently shuttered Catholic Community school. At first, Miles' mother, jazz pianist Sandy Asirvatham, says she and her husband were stunned by the difference.

"I had to get past certain 'public school' things," she says, such as "big, big" classes unlike the tiny ones at Catholic Community.

"To see 27 5-year-olds in my son's kindergarten last year was quite shocking at first," she says. But she acknowledges that Miles has flourished.

"The energy of that room, as crazy as it could be sometimes, is something he really enjoyed," she says. So far, first-grade has been "an incredible social learning experience for him that, in the small, rarefied environment of a private school, he might not have gotten."

Knowing the front office

Several parents at Johnson and surrounding schools in the Federal Hill section of Baltimore - once a blue-collar bastion that now attracts young professional families - say they sense a "critical mass" of families that's beginning to change the character of neighborhood schools.

At nearby Francis Scott Key Elementary-Middle School, Tiffany Harlow says her children - 11-year-old Mia and 5-year-old James - weren't the only ones who had to adjust to a different way of doing things after switching from private school.

Harlow remembers walking into the office at Catholic Community knowing the entire staff. "Now, when I go to this school, there's a lot of people - I might have never seen this person before."

Since signing her kids up at Key last fall, Harlow helped arrange several fundraisers and social events. As a lunchroom volunteer, she pushes kids to recycle those little foil juice boxes.

"There are a lot more parents who have the time, energy and skills to be involved," Asirvatham says. "They have the know-how to shake things up and get things done." And they tend to have a lot less patience when things don't go their way.

Miles Donovan attended kindergarten at another area public school, which invited students to take entrance exams for a gifted program. It accepted only 15 students per grade. Parents complained when their kids didn't get a slot, so the program was expanded to accommodate more kids - and other parents complained because it got too big.

A few families stuck with the program, others pulled out - and a few left the school altogether, Asirvatham says.

"You come with a certain sense of, 'This is my school, it should be working for me,' " she says of parents whose kids have been in private schools. "I've heard parents say, 'That principal is my employee. I pay her salary.' "

It's only natural that private-school parents would think that way, says Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which advocates for parental choice in education. "In a private school, you don't want to lose customers."

Allen has a few friends and colleagues who have moved their kids to public schools - and like conscientious public-school parents, they "know everything about the curriculum and what's expected of their child," she says. "They investigated how the teachers grade and how you best approach them, whether they like parents or are a little bit scared. They go out of their way to understand all of the offerings in a way that your public-school parent traditionally doesn't."

Allyn, in Evanston, Ill., agrees.

"Those of us who have seen other options are not as likely to accept the P.R.," she says. "They'll tell me, 'It can't be done, it can't be done,' and I don't understand why it can't be done because the private schools managed to do it."

She says friends are still talking about how to get their kids into public schools with programs that suit their kids' needs and interests - much as they talked about private schools in years past. A few have gotten "so frustrated with their public school experience" - dealing with standardized testing and school bureaucracies - that they're considering home schooling.

Noguera says schools must take the opportunity to keep these families in the fold.

"Public schools play such an important role for our democracy as the only institution that serves all children," he says. "If you lose the people who have the power of choice because they have the resources and the information and the time to make a difference, it becomes a system that only serves people who have no other option. And that's a problem."

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