Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Deep Reasons for St John's Enrollment Collapse

(Before you read this article, you should read this article about the numbers of students at St John and this article clarifying my attitudes toward Seward's schools.)

Here are the numbers of students who graduated from St John School's eighth grade through the last ten years:

1999 43
2000 36
2001 50
2002 35
2003 30
2004 27
2005 22
2006 27
2007 22
2008 10

The average size of the first three graduation classes (1998, 1999, 200) is 43 students, and the average size of the last three classes (2006, 2007,2008) is 19students.

A major reason for this collapse of enrollment seems to be the significant increase in tuition charges that were introduced in the autumn of 2001. Retired school secretary Bonnie Katt described this tuition increase as follows:

Before 2001, there was an enrollment fee and what we called a capitol-use fee, which was $50 per child per semester. I believe the enrollment fee was around $175 per child per year.

The first year for tuition was the fall semester of 2001, when the first child was $750 and then it was less for the second and third child, and the fourth child was free.

I calculate that before the year 2001 the previous annual cost for one child had been ($50 + $50 + $175 = ) $275. In 2001 and this cost was suddenly raised to $750, which was an annual increase of ($750 - $275 = ) $475. (See here for details about the current tuition, which has risen to $1,000.)

Another major reason for this collapse seems to be the school's principal David Mannigel had sexually abused several students. These accusations were brought to the Church's administration in March 2001, and Mannigel subsequently committed suicide in June 2001. A few months later, similar accusations were presented against teacher Arlen Meyer.

The class that enrolled in the autumn of 2001 when the tuition was raised and after the sexual-abuse accusations became public was the same class that graduated in 2008 with only ten students. It seems therefore that these circumstances caused a significant number of parents not to enroll their children into the school's first grade.

In addition a significant number of parents decided in this and the following years to transfer their children from St John School to Seward Elementary School before they graduated. Probably such transfers were more common when then children were in the lower grades and less common when the children already were relatively close to graduation.

In this article, however, I will argue that those apparent events -- the tuition increase and the abuse scandals -- were superficial causes of the enrollment collapse. These events gave those parents who transfered their children an excuse to do what they already were inclined to do for other, deeper reasons.

The tuition increase, $475 for an entire year, was sudden but reasonable and affordable. There are about 200 school days in a year, so the increase was only about $2.40 per school day. Perhaps parents had difficulty paying the entire tuition in advance and foresaw also that the tuition would be raised even higher in following years, but the economy was extremely good in 2001 (the US economy's real growth rate was 5%), so families were generally confident about future earnings.

Certainly the sexual-abuse accusations were a shock that upset and infuriated parents. However, no family could escape this danger by transfering its children to a different school, because such scandals can happen in any school and do happen in many public schools every year. In addition, parents had good reason to presume or hope that the accusations were exaggerated or false, because the accusations never were tested in a trial.

I am pondering this situation eight years later and from a great distance, so perhaps I misunderstand the feelings and decisions made by parents in those circumstances. It seems to me, however, that parents who really were strongly committed to educating their children in a parochial school would not have felt compelled by these particular events -- the tuition increase and the abuse scandals -- to send their children instead to a public school. Rather, it seems to me that these events significantly affected parents who already had become ambivalent sending their children to parochial school.

I will explain my opinion about deeper currents that already were moving people to send their children to Seward's public schools. I will welcome and present any contrary opinions or evidence that people might send me.

Until 1973, when Concordia High School was closed down, roughly one-third of each class that graduated from St John's eighth grade went to Concordia High School, where they continued a Lutheran religious education, and the other two-thirds of the class transfered to Seward High School, where they began a secular education. This annual split-up of St John's graduating class made some differences among the students more clear than they probably were later, when all the graduates transfered to Seward High School. By the year 2000, more than a quarter century had passed since the last time a graduating class split up so obviously. I will inform or remind my readers about those differences.

My eighth grade class, which graduated from St John School in 1966, had 34 students. Looking at our eighth-grade class in our yearbook, I remember that 12 of us continued to Concordia High School, and the the other 22 transfered to Seward High School.

The twelve who continued to CHS can be divided into three groups.

Six faculty kids: Connie Grabarkewitz, Jim Hardt, Gene Meyer, Bill Schwich, Mike Sylwester and Ken Uhlig.

Four college-manager kids: Sue Curtis (father managed the cafeteria), John Garmatz (father managed public relations), Steve Roettjer (father managed book store and student supplies), and Jane Schlueter (father managed engineering and maintenance).

Two miscellaneous: Rathje (father was a farmer) and Jim Miller (I don't remember what his father did; maybe his father was a college manager too).

All the faculty kids and all the college-manager kids in our eighth grade class continued to Concordia High School. Not one eighth-grade graduate in either of these two categories transfered to Seward High School. (Roy Churchill's mother managed the college cafeteria's kitchen staff, but his father had a job, as I recall, involving the town's cemeteries.)

I think that our class was typical of the St John graduates during the 1960s. I would categorize all children of St John teachers or of Concordia High School teachers as faculty kids, and I would categorize all children whose parents were employed as managers for any of these schools or for the church's congregation as "college-manager" kids.

The 22 students who transfered to Seward High School included several who were children in prominent families. For example, I remember that Robert Pollock's father was the town sheriff and that Dick Rolfsmeier's family owned the town's only car dealership. In general, those 22 could be divided most obviously into the children of town families and the children of farm families.

I can only guess at the reasons why the families of those 22 classmates decided to send their children to St John School for eight years and then to Seward High School for four years. My guesses include the following considerations:

Location: Some families lived very close to St John School, and Seward Elementary School was on the other side of town. While the children were small, the parents wanted the convenience and safety of sending them to the closest school.

Civic pride: Parents who had attended Seward High School or had established themselves in Seward's non-college community wanted their own children to develop similar local ties as young adults.

Cost: I think that the tuition for Concordia High School was rather high. Parents who had been willing to pay the relatively low tuition for the private elementary school did not want to pay much more the private high school.

School size: Seward High School was much larger than Concordia High School, and parents felt that the more varied options and opportunities were more important for their children in high school than in elementary school. For example, a student who wanted to become a mechanic would be able to attend shop classes at Seward High School.

Children's preference: Many of the children would have preferred to attend the public schools already for a long time. While the children were young, it was easier for the parents to over-rule them, but when the chidren reached high-school age, the parents had to comply more with their children's preferences. Keep in mind that most of these children lived relatively far from St John and most of their age peers in their own neighborhoods attended the public schools.

Disenchantment: Some parents and children might have had positive attitudes initially about religious education but then become increasingly disappointed or negative for various reasons during the successive years. These families might have continued through eighth grade by simple inertia or by embarrassment about expressing their negative feelings. They saw the eighth-grade graduation as a socially comfortable opportunity to abandon religious education. In some cases the parents or children might have decided secretly that they no longer believed the Lutheran religion after having been exposed to it for so long.

Misperceptions about CHS: Some parents might have perceived that Concordia High School was an appropriate high school only for young people who had decided to become Lutheran teachers or ministers and that ordinary young people would be misfits there.

I think that the unusual events of the year 2001 caused a lot of families that were not employed by Concordia to act according to the above considerations earlier than eighth-grade graduation. Rather than transfer their children after eighth grade, they transfered them after third or fourth grade or did not even send them to first grade. For those parents, this decision was not so radical, because they would have transfered their children after eighth grade even if the tuition increase and sexual-abuse scandals had not occurred. The transfer simply happened a few years earlier.

I think that in many of these families there always was a disagreement between the two spouses. One spouse insisted that the children attend St John while the other spouse preferred that the children attended Seward's public schools. In many such families the tuition increase and the sexual-abuse scandals simply tipped these arguments enough that the spouse who preferred the public schools now won the argument.

Based on my experience with my own eighth-grade class, I have the impression that about two-thirds of the families had a commitment to religious education that was limited. Even though a Lutheran high school was available, these families decided that a religious education only through eighth grade was enough. Although the high school was more expensive, I think those parents would have paid if their child earnestly wanted to continue in that direction. The children themselves preferred to transfer to Seward High School and the parents agreed or acquiesced. That was the situation in 1966, and I think it was similar after 2000.

In my next articles I will describe what I think are some other deep reasons for the collapse of enrollment at St John School.

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