Business ABC’s: Private Education in Nevada

Imagine running a business where your main competitor not only controls 95 percent of the market and provides its services for free, but federal law makes use of this product mandatory. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? Yet, this is the marketplace for Nevada’s private schools. It is a marketplace that forces them to constantly evaluate their product and prove their value to their customer base over and over again. Unlike public schools, where students are required by law to attend, year after year, enrolling in private school is a choice that compels each school to constantly market its advantages in order to keep the students returning and their parents writing tuition checks. And, although the population of Nevada’s school-aged children has continued its trend of record growth – currently hovering at just under half a million students – growth in private school enrollment remains flat.

According to Orval Nutting, private school consultant for the Nevada Department of Education, there are 170 private schools in the state, with approximately 20,862 students enrolled for the 2006-2007 academic year. Of those schools, 67 are dedicated to preschool-aged children, with 103 providing elementary, middle and high school education. While the actual number of students enrolled has increased, rising by 5.8 percent over last year, so has the population of the state. The percentage of total students enrolled in private schools has remained steady at just under 5 percent over the past 15 years. Nutting also said that Nevada has one of the lowest percentages of students in private schools in the country.

There are two types of private schools in the eyes of the state, according to Nutting: private licensed schools and exempt schools. The main difference between them is that private licensed schools are subject to the same financial review, employee verification and licensing of teachers as public schools, while exempt schools are not. As the term implies, exempt schools do not have to meet these criteria. They are exempt due to their affiliation with a church, mosque, synagogue or other religious institution.

Although the state only designates two types of private schools, within the private school community there are additional points of differentiation. According to Paul Schiffman, head of school for the Milton I. Schwartz Hebrew Academy, the term private school encompasses several different types of institutions. Parochial, for-profit, religious, independent and charter schools can all fall under this umbrella term.

Private schools in Nevada run the gamut from a small religious school with a handful of students to for-profit schools with 250 students to a Job Corps training school attended by approximately 570 young people to an independent school with just under 1,000 students. There is no single profile that can describe a typical Nevada private school. The largest single-location private school in Nevada is Faith Lutheran Junior-Senior High School in Las Vegas with 1,300 students. The Diocese of Las Vegas Elementary Schools have the largest private school enrollment, according to state records with just under 3,000 students. According to Nutting, the state is experiencing a slight growth trend in the number of private schools, as well as seeing existing schools expand to accommodate the state’s growing population. As with most things in the West, many of the state’s private schools can count their age in decades, with a only a few, including Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, passing the half century mark.

When electing to enroll their children in private school, parents base their decision on a number of factors. Religion is one of the primary reasons parents send their kids to private school. This category represents the largest group of private schools in Nevada, with roughly 58 percent classified as exempt schools associated with a religious institution. In total, almost 70 percent of the state’s private schools have a religious-based curriculum. According to Nutting, almost every major religion is represented in Nevada’s private schools.

Lee Bohs, senior vice president of corporate development for Nobel Learning Communities, Inc., noted that parents chose private schools primarily based on their own values and the desire to see those values integrated into their children’s education. Nobel Learning Communities operates the for-profit Merryhill Schools at Summerlin and Spanish Trails in Las Vegas, as well as for-profit schools throughout the country. “It comes down to the values and philosophy of the parents … seeing the values instilled during the early years of education,” he said. Bohs added that parents also recognize the benefits of the smaller classes offered in most private schools. While public schools must make room for all students, private schools can limit their enrollment, making smaller student-to-teacher ratios possible. “With the competitiveness of the world today, parents understand the long-term benefits of a premium education, and they are willing to pay for it and go outside of the classic public school system,” he said.

Making the choice for private school also means putting a real world value in dollars on the education a child receives. Every child attending private school is there because his or her parents have paid the fees required by the school. While many schools offer scholarships to enable children from lower income families to attend, the majority of the students come from families with the means to pay anywhere from a few thousand dollars a year to more than $10,000, depending on the school and age of the student. Private schools rely on tuition revenue to cover their operating costs, including teachers’ and administrative staff salaries, as well as the mortgage, utilities and other overhead expenses. Expansion comes only when, and if, the capital can be raised through fundraising efforts that rely first and foremost on the available donor base of parents, alumni and other benefactors.

Bishop Gorman High School and the Milton I. Schwartz Hebrew Academy have been fortunate enough to receive support from the community and alumni to fund new buildings. Bishop Gorman is completing construction on a completely new campus located in the Summerlin area that will allow the school to increase enrollment to 1,200 students and provide playing fields, a theater and expanded academic space. According to Dr. Paul Sullivan, head of school for Bishop Gorman, the facility is more ike a small college campus than a high school. “It’s unlike any other school facility that Las Vegas might see over the next 10 to 20 years,” he said.

Milton I. Schwartz Hebrew Academy, which has been providing instruction for preschool through eighth grade for 19 years, will be opening the doors on the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson School for the 2007-2008 school year. The school came about through a $25 million gift from the Adelsons to provide the Las Vegas area with a Jewish high school. In addition to academic spaces, the new facility will offer students a competition-sized swimming pool, a prayer and study center and a theater for performing arts. Schiffman said the drive for expansion came directly from the demand of the community and the desire to have a choice where they send their child. As an independent school, the Academy is not affiliated with any particular synagogue or group, and Schiffman said that he sees a need in the rapidly growing Las Vegas community for more private and independent schools to meet the demand.

In addition, Faith Lutheran, which has expanded several times throughout its 28 year history, is about to break ground on an $11 million chapel/performing arts center featuring additional classrooms and office space. Kevin Dunning, executive director of Faith Lutheran, said this is the latest addition the school is making in an attempt to keep up with demand. The school began to grow in 1992 as the Las Vegas population boom hit its stride. In 1998, Faith Lutheran moved to the Summerlin area at the request of developers who wished to include a non-public school in the master-planned community. In 2000, the school added a gym and 11 classrooms, and, in 2003, it added a cafeteria, student center and four more classrooms. Even as one of the largest private schools in the state, the demand for space is intense. “We will have a waiting list for every grade by the time enrollment is over,” Dunning said, adding that the community is very supportive of the school and its capital campaigns to raise money for the new buildings.

Calvary Chapel Christian School in Las Vegas is expanding its campus and when completed, the school will total 44,000 square feet. “We are doubling our classrooms,” said John Weaver, administrator for Calvary Chapel Christian School. “Currently, we have 22 classrooms and are adding 23 classrooms with the new building.” When the school opened in 1994, it was kindergarten through eighth grade with a total of 133 students. Today, the school is kindergarten through 12th grade, totaling 530 students. “We have steadily been increasing since we opened,” said Weaver. “Next year, we will have 560 students.”

Which brings the topic back to the original question: How do you compete when your main competitor does what you do for free? It comes down to basic market principles: offer something they don’t, be more responsive to customer needs, and find a niche you can make your own.

One thing public schools cannot offer is religious instruction. This is one of the reasons the majority of private schools have a religious affiliation. Thurban Warrick, superintendent of schools at Trinity Christian Schools in Las Vegas, said that religious schools give parents a choice. “There are parents out there who want to instill more Christian values in their children. We can talk about Jesus Christ and prayer, areas that public schools are unable to explore,” he said.

Calvary does not offer open enrollment. Parents are required to attend the school’s affiliated church, Calvary Chapel, or another Evangelical church. “It is important that the family has the same belief system as the school,” said Weaver. At Calvary, all subjects are taught from a Biblical standpoint. “We believe and teach students that all truth is God’s truth,” said Weaver.

Gregory Root, administrator for Legacy Christian School in Sparks, said that teaching Christian values is part of the school’s mission and Bible study is as much a part of the curriculum as reading, writing and arithmetic. The school uses the Bible as the model for conduct and behavior, and teaches the students how to integrate biblical lessons into their everyday lives. He said that even though public schools try to teach children to be good people, it comes from a different philosophical base that may conflict with what the parents are teaching at home. “We come from the standpoint that the Bible should guide the principles of a person’s life,” he said.

This is not to say that religious schools scrimp on the academics. Far from it. At the Martin I. Schwartz Hebrew Academy, Hebrew study takes place alongside algebra and Shakespeare. As Schiffman said, “Our parents come to us for our strong secular program, as well as Judaic study. Hebrew is taught to all our students. That’s why they’re here. They’re here because we have small class sizes. They’re here because this is our mission. We’re different from a public school because our parents can easily vote with their feet and leave. We are hopefully a quality alternative and we have to prove ourselves every day.”

Sage Ridge School, located in Reno, is an independent, non-sectarian day school. The curriculum is not mandated by a church or diocese and is centered around traditional core academia and is college preparatory. “Our goal is to prepare students for selective colleges,” said Bill Heim, principal of Sage Ridge School. “We are a laptop school,” said Heim. “Students can work anywhere – outside or sitting in the hallway.” Laptops are mandatory and are purchased by the parents. The school does however, offer a laptop plan. Sage Ridge offers financial aid for students who fit their criteria but can not afford to attend the school. “We want kids that want to excel and get in to good colleges,” said Heim. “We don’t turn them away because they can’t afford it.”

With an average school size of 200 students (based on Nevada Department of Education data) and a board of directors responsible only to the school and the enrolled students’ parents, private schools are often more agile at redefining themselves and changing course, if necessary. In this respect, especially, they operate more along the lines of private business than public schools. In many instances, they hire teachers for one-year contracts and do not offer tenure. Carolyn G. Goodman, head of school for The Meadows School, said, “Our investment is in our faculty. We believe that buildings don’t teach, the faculty does.” Over half the school’s instructors have advanced degrees, and most have been teaching at The Meadows for more than a decade, even though the school does not offer tenure.

Not all of Nevada’s private schools are about high test scores and Ivy League admissions, though. Unique among the state’s private schools is Sierra Nevada High School in Reno. The school, operated by the federal government, is one of the few remainders of President Lyndon Johnson’s Job Corps program that targeted disadvantaged youth and people living below the poverty line, and offers them the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and receive valuable vocational training. Currently, the school serves approximately 570 young men and women, providing technical training in 16 different programs such as construction, healthcare, culinary arts and business office tech. According to Dr. Joseph Reading, academic manager and principal for Sierra Nevada High School, the school operates under an open-entry and -exit policy, with new students arriving weekly and current students leaving, either because they have finished their training or because they have decided to opt out before finishing the program. “It takes a lot of courage for these kids to leave home, travel to a strange place, and make the commitment to turn their lives around. Most of them have not been successful in a traditional school environment, public or private. Not all of them make it, but they’re great kids and they work hard. For the most part, they are very grateful for the opportunities available to them through this program, and they make the most of it. They leave here, return to their communities and make a difference.”

Which is what education is all about in the first place – achieving results. As Paul Schiffman said, “It’s not about being better, it’s about being a better fit for a particular student.”