Dressed in plaid jumpers or blue shorts and white shirts, 2,675 students went back to class Monday at Spokane’s Catholic elementary schools.
They’re part of an estimated 100,000 students in Washington and Idaho attending private schools or being schooled at home this fall.
Still a minority, but a growing one, families who choose private education and home-schooling are making their impact felt.
Six years ago, 92.4 percent of Washington children went to public schools. Now, public schools’ piece of the pie is smaller: 91.4 percent. Home-schooling accounts for much of that decline.
In response, public schools are reaching out to home-school families and private schools to offer special programs for gifted students, disabled students, musicians and athletes who are not officially public school students.
“Many students who are home-schooled end up at public school at some point, often before middle school or high school,” said Spokane School District Superintendent Gary Livingston. “The more we link up with them, the easier that transition will be.”
A new Idaho law allowing home-schooled students to participate in public-school programs may have given home-schooling a boost, said Robert Forrey, a research analyst for the Idaho Department of Education.
He estimates 4,000 students are being home-schooled in Idaho. The state does not officially track non-public school students.
Parents’ reasons for choosing private education are as varied as the range of private schools.
“God is part of their education. Being able to celebrate the Christian holidays is part of their education,” said Sam O’Doherty, explaining why her children attend All Saints Catholic School in southeast Spokane.
Newcomers from Seattle and California choose private schools because the public schools where they’re from are failing, said Maureen Green, St. George’s School director of admissions.
“But our public schools are really very good here,” Green said. “People have good choices between public and private.”
Other parents believe public schools are going downhill because they’ve turned away from prayer.
When school started Monday at North Idaho Christian School in Hayden, about 220 students were there. That’s a dramatic increase from the 56 students who attended the Bible-based school six years ago.
“We have a few openings in select grades,” said administrator Larry Kay. Other grade levels have waiting lists.
Rising enrollment has led to a healthy excitement at Falls Christian Academy in Post Falls, where a new addition opened this fall to house two more classes of high school students. Some grades have waiting lists as long as 16 students.
Falls Christian expects to house 425 students this year. The growth has been a steady 30 to 40 new students each year, said school administrator Joe Williams.
“There’s a lot of Christian parents who want their children in a Christian setting,” Williams said.
In addition, classes are smaller. “They feel like they are getting more of a personal touch.”
Immaculate Conception Academy for boys and St. Dominic School for girls in Post Falls also have seen strong growth in recent years.
The sisters at St. Dominic’s would not divulge any information about their school when contacted Monday. But last year, in only the second year of operation, the school had about 140 students.
Immaculate Conception Academy had about 90 students and ambitious expansion plans. Both schools follow the teachings of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a former Roman Catholic bishop who was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for defiance.
While those two schools flourish, the mainstream Catholic parishes in Kootenai County are raising money to open their own school in Coeur d’Alene.
Backers of Holy Family Catholic school believe they have plenty of interest within the area congregations to open the school, but so far they lack the $350,000 they need to launch their school.
Now, Holy Family’s school board plans to open the school in fall 1996.
Schools in Spokane’s Catholic Diocese lost students in the mid-1980s as tuitions increased, said Superintendent Duane Schafer. But in 1989, enrollment jumped by 100 students and growth continued every year until last year, when it started to flatten out.
“People are starting to recognize, ‘It’s worth the money so I’m going to sacrifice for it,”’ Schafer said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Where the students are Color photo