As educational choices grow, Valley religious schools fight to attract families

There's a new Catholic school in Meridian

Brand-new St. Ignatius Catholic School in Meridian fuses traditional faith-based education with educational innovation, says Principal Andi Kane.
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Brand-new St. Ignatius Catholic School in Meridian fuses traditional faith-based education with educational innovation, says Principal Andi Kane.

Jackie and Bryan Lawley live in the Boise Foothills, close enough to Highlands Elementary School that their young children could walk to school.

But the Lawleys’ son will enroll in kindergarten this fall about 2  1/2 miles away at St. Mary’s Catholic School, where Jackie teaches. Bryan, who is not Catholic, said the school’s Spanish literacy program was the deciding factor — not religion, nor his wife’s employment, which brings reduced tuition.

The Lawleys want their children to be bilingual, and public elementary schools with language programs often have waiting lists. “At the end of the day, we want to provide our kids with the best education they can get,” Bryan Lawley said.

Catholic school enrollment nationwide has fallen, and other Christian school enrollment has remained flat. Competition from charter and magnet schools has increased, and some families cannot afford tuition.

“The reality across the country is that earning power and buying power is not what it used to be,” said Brad Carr, superintendent at Cole Valley Christian Schools in Meridian. “Most faith-based schools started from behind. Our prices have continued to rise while the earning power of American people has not.”

But in Idaho, many religious schools are holding steady or expanding. They are helped by the state’s population growth, third-fastest in the nation. But they’re also working to balance their spiritual missions with what their customers want — including academically rigorous courses, programs like the Spanish literacy that the Lawleys like, options to integrate home schooling and state-of-the-art school buildings.

This month, St. Ignatius, the first Catholic school to open in the Treasure Valley in 53 years, will welcome its first students.

“If a Christian school has been around for a while, has a nice endowment and a big student body, it will probably be OK,” said Kirk Vander Leest, headmaster at The Ambrose School in Meridian. “But for schools that are just offering ‘public school plus God,’ it will be hard to justify for parents why they should pay for that.”

For some, Idaho tuition is a good deal

Cole Valley offers pre-K through 12th grade. Carr said enrollment has risen steadily for the past decade to 950 students for the 2017-18 school year.

The most significant growth has been in the elementary grades, he said. Carr attributes that to a “surge of people moving into the Valley with young families.” They’re moving, Carr said, “from states where they couldn’t afford private schools, but now, in Idaho, they can.”

Tuition at Cole Valley ranges from $832 for a half-day pre-K enrichment program to $7,345 for a full-time high school student. The school offers discounts for families with multiple children, and 17 percent of families receive some kind of need-based tuition aid.

About five years ago, Cole Valley also opened a new program, The Idaho Learning Center & Academy, for students in grades 3-12. “We provide services to the community for struggling learners,” Carr said. The center opened with fewer than 20 students. Today, 95 are enrolled with more on the waiting list. “And that was without really advertising,” he said.

Expansions, and plans for more?

In the 1960s — nationally, the height of Catholic school enrollment — Idaho had 24 Catholic elementary schools and three high schools. Today, 800-student Bishop Kelly High is the state’s sole Catholic high school, and just 13 elementary schools survive.

Across the U.S., the trend is similar. The National Catholic Education Association says that in the past decade, 14 percent of American Catholic schools have closed.

Reasons vary, said Gene Fadness, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Idaho. Parishes have closed. Families are having fewer children. The church is growing more quickly in the South and West, away from its traditional population bases.

But the Idaho diocese sees recent enrollment as cause for optimism. Enrollment statewide rose from 3,001 students in 2012 to 3,290 in 2016. About 20 percent of those students come from non-Catholic homes.

The opening of St. Ignatius in Meridian will boost the statewide figure. Built on Meridian Road on the grounds of Holy Apostles Catholic Church, Idaho’s largest parish, the $10 million school has room for 480 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It will cap enrollment at 400 for one year while students and teachers get settled. Three-fourths of St. Ignatius’ students were not previously enrolled in the Boise area’s four other Catholic grade schools.

There are a fair number of hardcore religious people who wouldn’t go to any other kind of school. But I’ve met as many parents who enroll their children in faith-based schools for other reasons, whether that’s the language programs, or the appeal of a private education, or the strong school community.

Boise Foothills resident Bryan Lawley

Principal Andi Kane said there’s already a waiting list for each grade level, despite annual tuition of $4,000 for families who participate in the parish slightly more for other Catholics with discounts for families with multiple children. Tuition is $5,500 for non-Catholics.

The school, named for the patron saint of the Basque Country, includes a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) lab.

“There’s a misconception that we’re somehow against teaching science,” Kane said. “Our science curriculum is the same as you would see in any public school. We teach the same content. But we weave the beauty of faith into science.”

St. Ignatius also includes spots for outdoor classrooms and rooms with glass garage doors that open to create larger instructional spaces. Math and English students will be grouped by ability, not grade level. Individualized learning plans, like those in public school for children in special education or gifted programs, will be prepared for every student.

Other Idaho Catholic schools are preparing to expand. St. Paul’s Catholic School in Nampa is raising money for a new building. So is All Saints Catholic School in Lewiston. A second Catholic high school in one of Idaho’s larger cities is under discussion, according to the Idaho Catholic Register.

The ‘old, new way’ of education

At The Ambrose School, not far from St. Ignatius on Locust Grove Road, Vander Leest welcomes his new competitor.

“We’re excited about St. Ignatius opening in the same way Lowe’s is happy if Home Depot opens across the street,” said the headmaster, because more choices bring more bodies. “We want people to know that private education is a real option.”

Ambrose has just under 600 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Its applications have doubled over the past two years, Vander Leest said, and it has a waiting list for many grade levels.

The school offers a classical Christian curriculum. Vander Leest describes that as a “Christian great books program.” Students study Latin, Greek and French. By the time they graduate, they’ve read Plato and Aristotle. Ambrose offers a “robust math and science program,” he said, along with discussion, logic and debate.

“It’s a throwback, the ‘old, new way’ of education,” Vander Leest said. “We ask, ‘What would an educated person look like 150 years ago?’ 

Tuition ranges from $3,475 for half-day kindergarten to $8,400 for high-schoolers, with discounts for families with multiple children. Thirty percent of students receive financial aid.

Vander Leest said Ambrose asks that families have an affiliation with a religious institution. “We have 82 different churches represented among 340 families.”

Some parents, like Jenni Hovey, are attracted by Ambrose’s “Bridge” program for families who home-school their children. It offers two days a week of instruction at the school for half the cost of the full program.

When Hovey’s family moved from a suburban neighborhood onto five rural acres northwest of Boise, commuting to school five days a week became too much.

“I felt like I was always saying, ‘Come on, guys, it’s time to get in the car,’ ” Hovey said. That scramble, plus the lure of a home where they’ve exchanged homeowners association regulations for a tractor they ride down the street, made Hovey want to “go back and give my kids an old-fashioned childhood, with fewer electronics, and less of that constant hurrying up and rushing.”

“But I’ve never home-schooled. I wasn’t home-schooled,” said Hovey, who attended public school in Boise. So her two children will enroll in the Bridge program this year.

“I’m partnering with the teacher,” she said. “They will still do the heavy lifting, but it’s a foundation I can lean on.”

Diapers to diplomas

Enrollment at the 50-year-old Nampa Christian School has held at around 650 students for the past several years. The nondenominational school is “doing its best to stay relevant and on the cutting edge,” said Konrad Ziesing, communications director.

“In some ways it’s difficult to keep up,” Ziesing said. “We’re trying to build out our STEM programs, trying to stay current with what’s being offered in any school.”

Tuition doesn’t cover all of those costs, so the school relies on donors and fundraisers. Its faith-based curriculum is not competing with public schools, Ziesing said, but it, too, has worked to add programs that appeal to families.

One is an early childhood program that opened a couple of years ago. It offers day care for infants as young as 6 weeks old. It familiarizes families with the school while acting as a feeder to the academic program, which serves students through 12th grade.

“We like to say Nampa Christian is from diapers to diplomas,” Ziesing said.

Tuition ranges from $5,520 for five-day pre-K to $6,550 for grades 6-12, with discounts for families with multiple children. Fifteen percent to 20 percent of students receive financial aid.

Falling numbers at private Christian schools around the country haven’t been a big discussion topic at Nampa Christian, Ziesing said: “We’re not coming from that perspective. We’re trying to cast into the future.”