For private schools, enrollment growth is a pandemic silver lining

The pandemic shifted many families from public schools to private in 2020 — and they’ve stayed because they love it

By Scott Pickering
Posted 9/21/23

While the global pandemic made a mess of just about everything everywhere, it had a hidden benefit for private schools — it boosted their enrollments. Admissions directors at numerous …

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For private schools, enrollment growth is a pandemic silver lining

The pandemic shifted many families from public schools to private in 2020 — and they’ve stayed because they love it


While the global pandemic made a mess of just about everything everywhere, it had a hidden benefit for private schools — it boosted their enrollments. Admissions directors at numerous independent schools tell a similar story. Their inquiries, applications and enrollments all increased in the summer and fall of 2020, and some enjoyed their best admissions years ever.

“We admitted the most new students ever, in the history of Pennfield School, in the first year of Covid,” said Kristin Emory, head of external affairs and director of admissions and advancement at the Pre-K to Grade 8 school in Portsmouth.

That was the summer of 2020, when everyone was getting ready to go back to school after the infamous shutdown of in-person learning earlier that year. Many families were worried about the prospects of seeing their children spend an entire school year learning alone, while sitting at the kitchen island or lying in their beds, staring at laptop screens.

Therefore, many families shopped around and found that the private schools were mostly committed to reopening, in person, from day one, and many made the switch. They left the public schools and enrolled in private schools.

“We saw families that might not have discovered us prior — they weren’t considering a private school. But because we were open, they found us,” said Caroline Mullaney, admissions director at Gordon School.

Both admissions directors said their story in not unique. At conferences and in conference calls, they talk to their peers at other independent schools, and most say that the first year of the pandemic brought a significant boost in enrollment.

Data from the Rhode Island Department of Education backs up the anecdotes. Total enrollment in Rhode Island’s private or parochial schools in the fall of the 2018-19 school year (about 18 months before the pandemic started) was 4,830 students. Last school year, two years after the pandemic started, nonpublic school enrollment grew to 5,207, an 8% increase.

Furthermore, the increase was even more significant among Rhode Island residents, as compared to out-of-state residents. During the same time period, the number of out-of-state residents attending a private or parochial school in Rhode Island decreased 7% (from 837 to 780 students), while the number of Rhode Island residents increased 11% (from 3,993 to 4,427).

It was good news for the local private schools, most of whom enrolled more students from close to home than they had in a long time, or ever before. However, that’s just the beginning of the good news. The private schools did not just welcome new families in the first chaotic first of Covid, just to see them slip back to public schools once the world returned to more normalcy. They have so far kept those families and maintained the higher levels of enrollment.

Both admissions directors said their enrollment has been consistent since 2020, and they both suggest compelling reasons why.

Culture and character

Kristin Emory at Pennfield said the majority of their new enrollments fell into one of two categories. The new families were either looking for a safe environment in a school that kept its doors open to students every day, or they were part of an influx of new families moving to the area from out of state. This was especially impactful on Aquidneck Island, which attracted many families from Boston or New York, who fled the dense urban centers to live with some elbow room and fresh air near the water in Rhode Island.

Of course, that doesn’t fully explain why they’ve stayed. Emory believes it’s because once they get a taste of the private school culture, they can’t imagine leaving.

“A lot of people come here and love the environment,” she said. “We see a lot of students who have had unhappy social experiences in the bigger schools. Their parents want them to be in a place where they’re surrounded by people who are kind. They want to know that their child is going to be treated well by their peers.”

Pennfield students are in small, intimate classrooms. They work hard at academics, but they also spend a lot of time on the growth of the person.

“More than anything, we want our students to leave here being kind to people,” Emory said.

Pennfield devotes a lot of energy and attention on developing the whole child. They’ve added an array of new enrichment classes that run the gamut. “We have a lot of opportunities for kids to be kids, to stay young,” Emory said. “We believe that is so important.”

They run theater classes, citizenship classes and more, with students learning social skills, relationship-building and stewardship of the environment. “We’re teaching them to be good stewards of the earth. They’re learning to be better people,” Emory said. “Our kids really love to learn. They’re here to learn. Here, it’s still cool to be smart. It’s still cool to learn.”

The whole child

At Gordon, a Nursery to Grade 8 school in East Providence, Caroline Mullaney shares similar beliefs — that an emphasis on educating the whole child is helping to boost both enrollment and commitment to the school. “When a family steps in here, they recognize that we take students very seriously,” she said. Gordon has a popular motto that conveys their philosophy: “Our students become leaders sooner, and we keep them younger longer.”

Gordon has taken numerous steps to invest more deeply in that “whole child” concept. In the past few years, it hired its first school counselor, re-shaped its academic support model, pushed further with its ambitious outdoor learning programs, and reworked its schedule to incorporate a new block into every student’s day.

The “Whatever I Need” block is a time in every school day for social-emotional learning, for “relationship-building,” according Mullaney. In the lower grades, a teacher might simply take the students outside to run around if they have pent-up energy. They might use the time to read together, or read with the school’s new therapy dog, Denver.

In the upper grades, students might use the block as a college student would use office hours with a professor, getting extra help with their studies. Or they might go outside for a group activity, or gather together for a discussion on something timely or poignant.

The great outdoors

Being outdoors is also standard operating procedure at Gordon. Every classroom has a door to the outside, and students are outside as much as possible, typically twice a day, often more. Every classroom, all the way up to eighth-grade, has a standard recess block every day.

In addition, there are six dedicated “outdoor classrooms” that are used throughout the day. And inclement weather is not necessarily a barrier. A shed on the campus holds stacks of snow sleds, so it’s not totally unusual to see Gordon students out sledding on an in-school snow day. The younger students all get rain suits, so they can go out and stomp in puddles or conduct environmental experiments on a rainy day.

“We believe that kids should continue to be kids,” Mullaney said. “That’s part of the joy learning.”

Their community garden is an outdoor classroom, with younger and older students working together to manage and steward the space. “We definitely embrace our outdoor spaces,” Mullaney said.

The admissions directors acknowledge that outside forces sparked new levels of interest and enrollments in their school, but the schools themselves deserve credit for keeping those students and families engaged year after year.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.