Calvary Baptist Academy educated generations of youth from its namesake church in Montgomery, Alabama. But in spring 2009, after 30 years, it graduated its last class.
In June, school officials announced that the academy would be closing its doors, making it one of hundreds of private Christian schools nationwide that fell casualty this summer to a struggling economy and dwindling enrollment.
The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), which has more than 5,500 member schools worldwide, normally averages 150 school closures each year. It has already had more than 200 schools close in 2009, according to spokesperson Janet Stump.
The recession has hit struggling schools hard, and widespread unemployment has made it difficult for many families to keep paying private tuition rates.
"We believe that many families will not return," Stump said. "For many, it will take years to recover from the financial stress."
Schools in California, Florida, New England, and the upper Midwest have been hit the hardest, she said.
Enrollment in Southern California's ACSI schools dropped more than 9 percent in 2009 to the lowest that regional director Jerry Haddock has seen in his 22 years with the accrediting body.
"School closures happen every year, but declining enrollment doesn't," Haddock said. Enrollment in ACSI schools is down 5 percent nationwide, he said.
A smaller population of elementary-age children and the increasing popularity of charter schools—public-school alternatives that don't charge tuition—also have lowered enrollment in private Christian schools, he said.
The doors to many of the region's ACSI schools remain open for now, but school officials are waiting to see their final enrollment numbers for the 2009-10 school year before making further decisions. Ironically, the soft enrollment numbers come at a time when Haddock's schools no longer face teacher shortages—a silver lining to California laying off thousands of public school teachers.
While the economy has affected enrollment in schools of all denominations, Edward Gamble, executive director of the 720-member Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools, is optimistic that enrollment numbers will improve with the economy. "The schools that are started properly and rooted in biblical philosophies and Christian moral views are the schools that have stayed," he said.
Schools that do not rely on tuition to operate have fared better.
At one time, Lutheran schools did not charge tuition, supported instead by their respective churches, according to Terry Schmidt, associate director of schools for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Schmidt, who estimates that a few dozen of the denomination's 2,300 schools have closed, said Lutheran schools are making accommodations for students. He noted that one school, Child of God Lutheran School in Saint Peters, Missouri, is guaranteeing admission to families that cannot pay tuition.
Not all schools will be able to be so generous, leaving some families without the option of Christian education for their children.
"Christian schools provide tremendous support to students during their time away from their parents," Schmidt said. "Christian families are going to have to be more intentional and find ways to integrate their faith with the [children] as they raise them."
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Do Christian Schools Make Students More Religious? | A new study says they might, but adds that parents and peers have more influence. (February 11, 2009)
Stocks Squeeze Seminaries | Financial crisis may claim more evangelical schools in 2009. (January 12, 2009)
The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
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