Georgia private school students courted by public systems

Amanda Doron looks over the artwork on display during the North Springs Charter High School open house Sunday in Sandy Springs. Public schools in Georgia have begun recruiting private school students who are about to make the switch to high school by touting the variety of classes, clubs and events they offer. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Amanda Doron looks over the artwork on display during the North Springs Charter High School open house Sunday in Sandy Springs. Public schools in Georgia have begun recruiting private school students who are about to make the switch to high school by touting the variety of classes, clubs and events they offer. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

It was Sunday afternoon and the halls of Fulton County’s North Springs Charter High School were filled with students dressed in orange t-shirts, giving prospective classmates and their parents a tour.

The following morning, about 75 parents and students peeked inside classrooms of Gwinnett County’s Norcross High as part of its open house.

Several Atlanta area public high schools are holding open houses around this time of year, primarily for students attending nearby private schools that end at eighth grade. Many public schools in Georgia and the nation are finding creative ways to encourage private-school students to enroll amid the growth of charter schools and the disparaging talk about public schools.

The local schools guess about one-half of the private school students who tour their schools enroll. Experts say there’s minimal financial gain for public schools in adding these students. But many of them are top scholars, and having them in a school can boost its academic standing.

The schools stress they’re sharing information about themselves, not recruiting. But there is an underlying zeal to persuade them to enroll as some private schools consistently recruit students through newspaper ads and other methods. The Archdiocese of Atlanta has its own video, titled “Why Catholic Schools?”

“It’s just good ol’ fashioned competition,” said Steve Dolinger, a former Fulton County superintendent who is president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit that frequently holds seminars to discuss education issues.

North Springs has a five-minute video that explains the school’s curriculum. Norcross gave parents a folder with detailed registration information. In Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School cluster, some parents send social-media posts to friends whose children attend area charter schools promoting what’s going on at the high school.

In some instances nationally, the promotional efforts are more elaborate. The Wall Street Journal recently reported efforts such as 8-foot-high banners with photos of local schools’ college-bound students lining a busy road in Los Angeles. A Minnesota school district sends parents of newborns a baby bag including a bib with a district logo, a welcome letter from the superintendent and a course catalog, the Journal noted.

Public school enrollment in Georgia is still far ahead of private schools (1.7 million to about 200,000 some estimates show), but private schools are gaining. Since the 1997-98 school year, private school enrollment has increased by about 31 percent while public school enrollment has grown by about 25 percent, according to the most recent state data.

Public schools say they can offer more Advanced Placement courses, better technology, and the tuition is free.

Many of the students who toured the schools seemed impressed, although one group of students noticed some classwork posted on school walls that they’ve done already.

At North Springs, each side of the main hallway was filled with tables displaying various school clubs and programs. Visitors could see its art gallery, a classroom filled with paintings and drawings mostly done by students. About 200 parents and students attended.

Kyra Rogers, 13, an eighth-grader at the highly-touted Ron Clark Academy, was there with her dad Trevor to take a look. North Springs is among 14 schools she’s considering for high school. They’re looking for a school that has strong academics, and is cost-effective (her parents are paying $8,000 in tuition at Ron Clark), with caring teachers.

“I’m looking for a place where I can have good supporters,” Kyra said.

She said another selling point for North Springs is she would no longer have to wear a uniform.

Melanie Zeewy and Sabrina Leftoff, both eighth-graders at the nearby Davis Academy, plan to attend North Springs next year. They were amazed, like some parents, by the school’s size.

Norcross High principal Will Bishop said the school’s size — at 3,800 students, it is Gwinnett’s largest — concerns some parents.

“How will they get involved in anything?,” he said some ask. “It’s such a big school.”

The school has a team of counselors and other administrators that helps freshman make the transition, administrators explained on the tour. At Norcross High, about 75 visitors were told its educational advantages included its new Junior Achievement Academy where students meet local entrepreneurs and visit businesses. The civic pitch noted the school’s involvement in causes such as the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life.

“There are a lot of opportunities as students for them to be involved,” assistant principal Kathy Sanchez told the group.

Simon Ben-Moshe attended private school before enrolling at North Springs this school year. His younger brother, Ethan, toured the school Sunday. Simon likes the school, but is not pressuring Ethan to join him. Their parents, Laurie and Ron, understand each child learns differently. A decision must be made soon.

“You do your homework to find out what’s best for your kids,” said Ron.

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