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Private high schools flourish despite waning baby boom

It almost looks as if the nation's private high schools haven't heard about the coming enrollment decline. Even as public high schools brace for mergers and closings as the last of the postwar baby boom students near graduation, private schools are preparing to open their doors next month to a record number of students. One reason: a sizable pot of financial aid for students.

Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, for instance, will disburse $1.2 million in scholarship grants this year. Almost one-third of the student body will receive some aid. At the same time, the school is so overenrolled that it is converting one house on campus into a dormitory. "We're chock full," says admissions director Jack Herney.

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For most private schools, which now educate an estimated 10 percent of the nation's high school students, enrollment has been climbing steadily over the last several years. Reasons range from parents' growing interest in more discipline, structure, and no-frills courses to an erosion of support for public schools, reflected in cuts in tax dollars available and increasingly vocal criticism.

Private schools, accused of stealing students from the public schools, smart at such criticism. But many parents do tend to associate private schools with a more orderly and demanding academic atmosphere. The importance of that kind of environment as a factor in academic success has recently been underscored by sociologist James Coleman in a controversial and much-discussed report on US high schools.

"Many of the families coming to us have public schools backgrounds -- this is their first experience in private school ducation," notes Jacqueline Leinbach, director of admissions at Lake Forest Academy-Ferry Hall outside Chicago. In her view, what draws them to make the change is the widespread private school reputation for more rigorous academics, more personal attention per student, and a more disciplined atmosphere than they might find in the public schools. Lake Forest-Ferry Hall, for instance, she says, has a dress code ("which students usually grumble about at first") and dismisses anyone found using or in possession of alcohol or drugs. "People really want their children to have that kind of environment," insists Ms. Leinbach.

Also paving the way to higher private school enrollment are improved financial incentives. Though tuition, room, and board charges are more than $6, 000 a year at many schools, the kitty of financial aid available at the more than 800 American schools that are members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) has more than doubled over the last decade to a total of $91 million.

"The amount of financial aid money available is just staggering," suggests Karen Hegener, editor in chief of Peterson's Guides, educational reference books that keep a running annual tally on such facts and figures.

Also making private education more affordable is the fact that both parents of most private school pupils usually have jobs. "It's not just the father anymore," says Linda Humphrey, a staff member of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

The recently passed Reagan administration tax-cut package and the expected approval by Congress of tuition tax credits for private education are expected to increase the lure of private schools still further.

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Scholarship aid, now used by about 16 percent of the students enrolled in independent schools, is considered a key factor in helping private schools gain a more democratic, less elitist image in recent years. "Most independent schools now pride themselves on having a broad cross section of students," says NAIS spokeswoman Anne Rosenfeld. She says minority students now account for about 9 percent of the enrollment in independent schools, almost double what it was five years ago. About half of the minority students receive some financial aid.

Although private schools already are under strong pressure to reach out to a broader group or lose their tax-exempt status, some financial-aid officers say that the outreach could and should be extended.

"Many families accept great sacrifices in their life styles to send their kids to private school," says Karen Suplee, associate director of admissions and financial aid officer for the George School in Pennsylvania. "They just don't consider aid even a possibility."

"The real problem has been that there are too many parents who never bother to apply," says Richards Griggs, until recently a financial aid officer at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Phillips, he points out, will disperse $2 million in financial aid this year. And he notes that the School Scholarship Service (which provides a form used by most independent schools to determine family need) recently upgraded its eligible income ceiling from $30,000 to more than $50,000 for families with more than one child.

But many of those charged with raising and dispensing funds insist most financial aid funds are used to the fullest and that private schools are eager for more. "It doesn't follow at all that there's a lot of dough looking for someone to spend it," says Robert L. Smith of the Council for America n Private Education.

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