Drop in enrollment reflects larger trends


Photo: Emma Bennett

Data from the Memphis Business Journal in April 2016 shows the decline in private school enrollment. In comparison to five other private schools in the area, St. George’s admission rate dropped less drastically, as seen in the bar graph above.

St. George’s has always been known as a small independent school, yet the number of students in the Collierville Campus has shrunk significantly in recent years.

In the past, over 100 students were enrolled in each middle and upper school class, but as of today, there are only 225 students in the middle school and 388 students in the upper school.

Yet St. George’s is not an outlier in the wave of admission downtrend. Independent schools locally and nationally are feeling the enrollment pressures.

Memphis Business Journal found in April 2016 that enrollment numbers of some of the largest private schools in Memphis decreased by over 10 percent, a loss of over 400 students in the last year. Only eight of those schools increased in enrollment and, together, grew by only 136 students.

Although St. George’s is among those that had less drastic drops in admissions, there are still fewer students. But why?

Upper School Director Mr. Tom Morris said that downturns in enrollment are normal, and they essentially are occurring because of the evolving Memphis area.

“Our situation here is attributable primarily to market forces like demographic change in Memphis,” Mr. Morris said, “and we can’t control those forces.”

One factor to consider is the great financial commitment to be made in independent schools. The admissions section of the St. George’s website lists that the middle school’s tuition is $19,200, and the upper school’s tuition is $19,500.

According to Director of Admissions Mrs. Olivia Buffington Hammond, the St. George’s experience also helps families decide whether the school is worth applying for.

“St. George’s is in a great place in Memphis because we are so different from the other options available, and our experience and approach to education stands out,” Mrs. Hammond said. “We have a variety of programs, such as our partnership with Choose901, the Senior Independent Study, the Science and Innovation Lab and our hands-on-approach towards learning.”

Some families that seek out a better experience for their students outside of independent schools have left and even returned.

Junior Gabby Acker left St. George’s for Houston High School at the beginning of her sophomore year due to her siblings’ spring break schedules and the less expensive education. She later returned in the middle of the school year, unhappy with her public school experience.

“I couldn’t work with the teachers at Houston as well, and it seemed like they didn’t care as much,” Acker said. “The academics are better at St. George’s, and I got used to how nice and calm it is. I feel like I belong here, and I didn’t belong there.”

As for Head of School Mr. Ross Peters, the school’s primary focus should be on the experience of current students and families, like Acker, and not on the number of students enrolled.

“Independent schools have to be more flexible, more resilient, more willing to ask big questions about how we do what we do and how we can do it better,” Mr. Peters said. “If we do that really well, we’ll be valuable, and people will start to find us.”

Mr. Morris believes that the school can find a solution to this problem, but it is more complicated than what it seems.

“For one, it is delivering the best experience we can for kids and families. Also, it’s executing on the new schedule and all its possibilities at a very high level,” Mr. Morris said. “Then, it is making sure that the school is communicating with kids and families the way it needs to.”

Mrs. Hammond suggested that the role of admissions also falls into the hands of students and families, which betters the school itself and its place in the independent school market.

“Over 80 percent of people who are looking at independent schools are doing so because of word of mouth. Admission is not just an office of admission endeavor, but rather, our entire school,” Mrs. Hammond said. “Students are the best people to tell others about our story.”

In reality, students should not let the drop scare them, and according to Mr. Peters, they should work together to make a greater school environment instead.

“We’re not helpless victims of a changing world,” Mr. Peters said. “What we control is how good are we. We all have a responsibility in a school like this to make it a better place [and] to make it the school it’s supposed to be.”