Why Is Private School Enrollment on the Rise?
Northern Virginia is known for its excellent public schools, but private school interest is ticking up. For some, Covid was a tipping point.
Erin and Matt Hart moved their family to Arlington for the great public schools. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, they saw the system’s shortcomings right outside their front door.
“At 1 o’clock every day, there were 25 to 30 kids at the basketball hoop in front of our house,” Erin Hart says.
At that point, Arlington Public Schools (APS) was offering asynchronous study and not much else. “It’s like everything stopped,” she says. “Four months of learning no new material. How can that be?”
Inside the house, their son, Will, then a ninth-grader at Yorktown High, wouldn’t even get out of bed to do his virtual learning. Daughter Emmy, a seventh-grader at Swanson Middle School, worked from the basement alongside her mother, a video event producer.
“I could see the decline in her,” Hart says. “As the months went on, she was slumped in her chair, [or] lying on the couch during the school day and losing her focus.”
By the fall of 2020, APS was offering synchronous classes with teachers on video, but even then, some lessons were pre-taped, so kids couldn’t ask questions as they followed along. “I felt like Arlington threw their hands up in the air and said, ‘Nothing we can do,’ ” Hart says. “It was frustrating.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Harts had considered moving Will to The Potomac School, a private school in McLean, but ruled it out because of the steep price tag. (For families that don’t qualify for financial aid, the annual tuition is about $48,000, according to Potomac’s website.) Watching him languish during months of remote learning changed their minds. They tightened their belts, put off replacing an old car and made the switch.
Emmy maintained straight A’s through the worst of Covid and returned to the classroom at Swanson in the spring of 2021, but she “bombed” a high school placement test for math. The following fall, she left APS and started ninth grade at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, where smaller classes and close teacher involvement helped her re-engage.
“I think [APS] failed a lot of people, not just us,” Hart says.
Other families had it even worse, she adds—especially those who lacked the resources to deal with glitchy school iPads and internet connectivity problems.
Today, Emmy is a rising junior at O’Connell and Will is headed to his freshman year at James Madison University.
“We moved to Arlington County because of the school system,” Hart says. “We never in a million years thought we would do the private school thing.”
Mary Killay Lavayen, a consultant with Independent School Options in Alexandria, says she is seeing many families who previously never would have considered private schools suddenly in the market.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” says Lavayen, a matchmaker of sorts for families looking at private or boarding schools. “Since Covid, we absolutely saw a major influx of families in public wanting to go into private.”
All schools were thrown for a loop when the pandemic shut down the country in March 2020. Private schools quickly shifted to online instruction while public schools adapted more slowly.
When the fall of 2020 rolled around and public schools were still getting their bearings with distance learning, word got out that some private schools in the DMV were already masking up and fully (or at least partially) returning to campus. Many had the advantage of open space—in some cases, acres of land with sprawling outdoor areas—and smaller class sizes, which made them better equipped for social distancing, compared with packed public-school classrooms.
Lisa Stengle, executive director of planning and evaluation at APS, estimates that about 1,000 students left APS during the pandemic to attend private schools.
The Potomac School, which offers K-12 instruction to 1,069 students, saw an immediate uptick in interest during Covid, says John Kowalik, head of school. Applications for the 2021-22 school year shot up by more than 15% over the previous year. Potomac’s attrition rate, which once hovered around 3-4%, is now below 2%. Its yield rate (the percentage of accepted students who end up attending) has increased from 79% to 86%.
Kowalik says Covid isolation took a toll on students. “A lot of families were looking for a personalized approach where each child could be known,” he says. At Potomac, class sizes are capped at 15 to 17 students, whereas APS classes may have as many as 24 students per teacher.
“We moved to Arlington for the school system. We never in a million years thought we would do the private school thing.”
Even before Covid, the promise of smaller classes was prompting some families—the ones that could afford it—to cough up anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 annually for private school tuition. (One parent joked that the tuition payments were like driving a Lexus off a cliff every year.)
Rachel Nadjarian remembers feeling frustrated by the speed-round of parent-teacher conferences at APS. The meetings were so brief, she says, that they left no time to get to the root of her daughter Nairi’s learning differences.
“I was always fighting to get attention for her,” says the Arlington mom. “I didn’t feel the public school could be [our] partner in raising a confident, purposeful, self-advocating learner.”
In 2018, Nairi left Williamsburg Middle School for The Sycamore School in Arlington, where she’s now a rising senior.
“The reality of public schools—it’s not the teacher’s fault—is if you have [that many] students, you pay attention to the squeaky wheels [or the highly engaged ones],” says Karyn Ewart, Sycamore’s head of school. “The other kids you kind of don’t have time to interact with.”
A former school psychologist, Ewart founded Sycamore in 2017 as an alternative for students who need help with socio-emotional skills as well as academics. Tucked inside an office building in Rosslyn, Sycamore has a 1:6 teacher-to-student ratio, and just 70 students in grades 5 through 12. The school’s mastery-based learning model is heavy on projects and allows kids to move at their own pace.
Ewart says many students come from APS, where something wasn’t working for them, such as academic or social struggles, bullying or just feeling invisible. Some have learning differences like ADHD, high-functioning autism or anxiety.
“[Our country] had a lot of problems with kids with anxiety before Covid,” she says, “but now it’s skyrocketed. Parents are realizing their kids are not okay.”
At Congressional School in Falls Church, classes are capped at 20 students, with two teachers per class. Situated on a leafy, 40-acre campus near Lake Barcroft, the independent K-8 school allocates even more teachers for younger grades.
As inquiries flooded in during the worst of the pandemic, the school increased capacity and welcomed an additional 20 to 30 students, says Edwin Gordon, head of school at Congressional. Many families that had intended to return to public schools ended up staying.
“We were a little worried about what attrition would be like,” says Gretchen Herbst, director of enrollment management and financial aid. “Were they just looking for a quick fix? [But] we haven’t lost them.”
Today the school continues to hear from parents whose kids fell behind during Covid and still haven’t caught up.
The pandemic made things worse for students who already struggled with socialization. Distance learning left them isolated. They forgot social norms and how to act around other people. Some of that social relearning led to disciplinary problems in school—another concern for parents kicking the tires on the private school option.
Since 2020, Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria has noted growing interest, not just because of its academics and smaller classes, but also because it bans cellphones during class and offers a faith-based environment, says Kathleen McNutt, head of school.
For students who are easily distracted, she says, the relatively lower rate of behavioral disruptions is a huge benefit. Less drama helps them stay focused.
“On the social and emotional wellness side, parents were seeking environments where they knew there was going to be structure and rules in place,” McNutt says. “They weren’t getting that where they were coming from.”
This fall, Bishop Ireton’s enrollment will increase from 860 to 925 students. The private Catholic school has seen 13% growth in the past two years, and 20% over four years. For the first time since the early 2000s, it has a waitlist for students in all grades. McNutt says roughly 20-25% of new students come from public schools.
Bishop Ireton, a private Catholic school in Alexandria, has seen 20% growth over four years.
Other faith-based schools are reporting the same trend. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which oversees 41 parochial schools in Northern Virginia, saw a 9% jump in enrollment between the academic years starting in fall 2020 and 2022.
Oriana MacGregor, head of development, enrollment and marketing at Saint Ann Catholic School in Arlington, remembers being inundated with requests for tours in the fall of 2022. More than half of the families who visited wanted to move their kids out of public schools, she says.
“Academics are great in Arlington, anywhere you go,” MacGregor says. “But they’re looking for more strength of community and an education that focuses on the spiritual, emotional and academic welfare of the students.”
Catholic schools are a bargain compared with many other private institutions in the area. At Saint Ann, the annual tuition is $8,545 for Catholic students ($13,530 for students of other faiths), with discounts for families enrolling more than one child.
Like most private schools, it also offers financial aid to qualifying applicants.
For Heather Wishart-Smith, the begging began on Saturday mornings. That’s when her son, who has learning differences, would start pleading not to have to go to his public school on Monday. And this was well before Covid turned up the dial on kids’ stress levels nationwide.
In 2017, Wishart-Smith’s son transferred to the McLean School in Potomac, Maryland, which specializes in providing instruction to students with learning differences such as dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD and organizational challenges. The tuition was “a fortune,” says the Arlington mom, but the setting provided the support he needed. “It gave him a future we never thought possible,” she says. “It was transformative.” This year, he’ll enter his sophomore year at a larger private high school in the area.
Wishart-Smith’s daughter Glory, who struggles with anxiety, also left APS. She now attends Sycamore, where she has benefited from broader academic choices, smaller classes and extra help with math. The fact that the school’s curriculum is not built around a traditional grading system or standardized testing has helped Glory to thrive. In public school, standardized testing was a major source of anxiety.
Wishart-Smith doesn’t fault public school teachers for the issues that prompted her to send two of her three kids to private school. Many teachers were already stretched thin when Covid threw the educational system into chaos. Some became burned out and left the public schools system.
Wishart-Smith now works as a substitute teacher for APS a few days a month to help ease the current teacher shortage. But she has no regrets about the decisions she made for her family. “The irony is, we moved to Arlington for the public schools,” she says, repeating a common refrain, “and it didn’t work out for our two older kids.”
APS planner Stengle points out that public schools need to be geared to help all types of students. APS has dedicated math coaches, reading specialists, teachers for gifted students and other support staff. Kids with learning differences may qualify for special accommodations through Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans. “Our schools are really generously resourced with teachers,” she says.
But even the best public schools can’t compete with private schools on class size and student-teacher ratios. Public school resources are limited compared with private schools, even in affluent communities like Arlington.
“Families with more money have more opportunities,” Stengle says plainly. “Public education has to serve everyone.”
At the start of the pandemic, Victoria Lion Monroe had two kids at Yorktown—a school that is currently ranked No. 14 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top public high schools in the state of Virginia.
Her son stayed and finished out his senior year there (he graduated in 2021), but daughter Linden, who had been diagnosed with ADHD the year before and had a 504 plan, lost her footing with the shift to remote learning.
“She was not retaining information. She was struggling to complete assignments. The ability to be distracted and not pay attention was easier when it was virtual,” says Monroe, a business development and marketing consultant.
Linden applied to several private schools and chose Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland, where an adviser overseeing a group of just 11 girls checked in with her daily, and the school’s learning center kept her accountable through twice-weekly meetings. That structure helped her excel, her mom says, even in the face of a more rigorous curriculum.
“She had a much more personalized experience than she would have had in the Arlington system,” Monroe says. “Because of the smaller numbers—just 75 in her graduating class—it allowed more engagement across the student body and with teachers and administrators.”
Linden is now a sophomore engineering major at the University of Mississippi.
It’s hard to parse out exactly how many students transferred from public schools to private (or vice versa) during and after the pandemic. Student populations are forever in flux, affected by changing demographics such as birth rates that ebb and flow.
Arlington’s sizable share of military and foreign service families also has an impact on school enrollment. Five years ago, Ashlawn Elementary received a sudden influx of 49 students just before the first day of school when diplomats were evacuated from an unstable North African country. China’s early Covid lockdown brought a batch of State Department families back home.
APS’ student population peaked at 28,000 students in 2019, Stengle says—a 42% increase compared with a decade earlier. Enrollment dipped to 26,000 during Covid, and by the fall of 2022 had rebounded.
But even with that rebound, Arlington’s post-pandemic public school population ended up lower than expected. At the start of 2021, APS released a three-year projection report anticipating 30,166 students in the fall of 2022. Actual 2022 enrollment was 27,455.
The school system’s previous enrollment projection of 30,467 students for the 2023-24 school year has since been revised to a more modest 28,165.
To some extent, the lower enrollment numbers may be reflective of a generational decline in school-age kids—a demographic trend Stengle says is giving APS some breathing room to modernize its 43 schools via capital improvement plans. But for families that already opted to move their children to private school, those pipeline projects are in the rear-view mirror.
Rachel Nadjarian still remembers the day her daughter, Nairi, came home from a tour of Sycamore ebullient, declaring, “I decide how I get to learn!” Today, Nairi is a rising senior, having recently completed an immersion experience in France.
“She has blossomed,” Nadjarian says. “If she can master self-directed learning, she can do anything.”
Tamara Lytle is a frequent Arlington Magazine contributor covering education, economic development and other community issues.