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New public schools have "little impact" on local private schools

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By David Carroll

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- Hamilton County has opened two new middle-high schools in the past two years, causing Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales to tout the addition of former private school students.  How did those private schools handle the new competition from Signal Mountain and East Hamilton schools?

"There was no panic," according to Randy Tucker, headmaster of Girls Preparatory School. "It was just another element we had to deal with."  Tucker is referring to the economic slowdown "which we began feeling about four years ago.  Our last building project was completed in the middle of all that, and we're not planning any new ones right now."

Tucker, along with his counterparts at Baylor and McCallie schools, had to readjust their thinking and planning in the face of added competition and economic shortfalls.  Tucker said, "I began here as an educator almost 25 years ago.  But I have to be much more of a CEO now.  We are carefully monitoring where every dollar goes these days, and that's something we should have done more of back when times were good."

Still, enrollment numbers are nowhere near as bleak as some might have predicted.  Baylor is actually up one student from last year (1052 to 1053) while McCallie is down about four percent (917 to 881).  McCallie spokesman Billy Faires attributes the drop to the school's largest-ever senior class in 2010 and "an unexpected influx of students last year from the recently closed David Brainerd Christian School."  Faires says the school's enrollment has been "steady at around 900 for the past five years."  At GPS, enrollment is down from 625 to 609, also after a large senior class graduated, and after a planned cutback in the number of sixth graders admitted.

The fact that Chattanooga's "big 3" private schools are holding steady is remarkable when compared to the dramatic gains at the county's newest public middle-high schools.  Tenth-day enrollment figures show East Hamilton skyrocketed from 1600 to 1922 students during the past year, while Signal Mountain is also growing at a rapid pace (1008 to 1180).

East Hamilton added its first senior class this year, contributing to its growth, and officials are already talking about the need to rezone some students in the near future.  Nearby Ooltewah High, where many of the students came from, has reported a sharp enrollment drop this year.

Signal Mountain is taking in an increasing number of students who were once zoned for Red Bank High, and has approximately 40 new students this year from East Ridge Middle and Howard High.  Students from those schools are given the option of attending Signal Mountain (which is paired with those schools under No Child Left Behind as a higher-performing school).

GPS Senior Teddie Chastain, who makes the 45-minute drive from Cleveland each day, says she has seen friends and classmates "whose families make great sacrifices" for them to attend area private schools. "But it's worth it, and I don't think most students have even realized GPS has had to cut in some areas.  The quality is still here, and that's what makes it special."

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