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New private schools in works for fall

Interest in alternative education has spiked since public schools announced reopening plans

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Two new private education programs have emerged in recent weeks in an effort to provide additional learning opportunities to students in the Springfield area.

Discovery School at the Center, launched by Discovery Center of Springfield Inc., and a new venture dubbed EnCompass Academy are set to open this month.

Though both programs were in the planning phases prior to the coronavirus pandemic, officials say local demand has proven the market in recent months.

“A lot of students are really struggling with the online component,” said Nacy Ryerson, dean of schools for EnCompass Academy, about current learning platforms through Springfield Public Schools. “COVID-19 has shown us more than ever that a personalized learning environment is needed … because no one learns the same. In a class of 30, it’s really hard to meet everyone where they are.”

Interest in the program picked up last month after SPS announced its reopening plans for the fall. Parents of district students were given the choice to send their children to SPS classrooms for two days a week with three days of virtual learning or to do full-time virtual learning. By press time, 26% of students were signed on for fully virtual learning, while roughly 18,000 students opted for the in-person and virtual learning option, said SPS spokesperson Teresa Bledsoe. She said the district, which serves 24,400 students, was still working to connect with families that had not responded.

Ryerson said 30 students have enrolled in EnCompass Academy, and the school will accept up to 45 students the first year. The program is designed to offer an inclusive, personalized learning environment for students, including those who are gifted or disabled, she said.

Discovery Center Executive Director Rob Blevins said over 50 applications had been submitted by press time for its school program, which will focus on science, technology, engineering and math programming for 20 K-5 students. Blevins said the school concept had been a goal for several years, but COVID-19 revealed a need.

“In June, when parents asked if we could consider keeping their kids in the fall … that really spurred us along. It’s one thing to want to do something and another thing for your community to ask you to do it,” he said. “Now that people know what we’re capable of educationally, there’s more people looking to us to be a leader in that.”

Longtime private schools also are experiencing a bump in inquiries, though some are still waiting for parents to pull the trigger on enrollment, according to officials at the schools.

School startups
EnCompass Academy, which begins classes Aug. 24, is renting space from The Venues church at 2616 E. Battlefield Road and will meet five days a week with social distancing protocols in place. Ryerson said the seven-employee school has a COVID-19 committee that meets regularly to evaluate student safety.

Monthly tuition for prekindergarten students is $1,000 and $750 for K-12.

Executive Director Wendy Jackson said the school’s startup costs have been $28,000, of which $15,000 came from private donations. Jackson said the school has not had to take out a line of credit to fund its startup. The school’s annual budget is just over $500,000 and officials are seeking additional grants and fundraising opportunities, she said.

At Discovery School at the Center, Blevins said startup costs for the school will be over $100,000, which includes salary increases for two employees stepping into teaching positions, remodeling costs to customize the classrooms, and technology and equipment purchases. 
“The only way we can fund it right now is through tuition,” he said, adding admission fees are $200 a week per child.

Outside of its seated classrooms, both EnCompass and the Discovery Center are launching learning support programs for SPS students during their three days of virtual learning. Blevins said the demand came from working parents who can’t afford to stay home with their children.

“People are going to be choosing between keeping a job and staying home with their kid,” he said.

Blevins said the center had over 200 SPS students in the queue within 24 hours of the nonprofit’s announcement. The program costs $125 per week with a capacity of 140-160 kids, depending on how many sites are secured. They’re relying heavily on donations, he said.

“We’re looking at off-site locations, a former early childhood care center and some additional sites,” he said, noting only a few students will be at the Discovery Center downtown because of other planned programs. “In an ideal world, we could have satellite locations spread out in different parts of town.”

Jackson said EnCompass applied for a grant through the Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc.’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to be able to provide the program to roughly 50 SPS children of essential workers and district teachers. The program, though, is not in partnership with SPS. If the academy is not awarded the grant, she said the school still would provide the learning support, just for a smaller group of children. Weekly program costs are $100 per child.

According to results from an poll conducted July 30-Aug. 6, 33% of the 483 respondents enrolled their children in SPS’s in-person and virtual learning option, while 14% chose full-time learning. Roughly 15% chose to remove their children from attending SPS, and the remaining respondents don’t have children or don’t have any in the SPS district.

Additionally, CoxHealth officials announced this month they would be temporarily closing The Meyer Center to launch a school care program for employees’ children.

Leaders of the health care system are in discussions with local universities to provide tutoring for the students, according to a news release. CoxHealth is the largest area employer, with nearly 12,400 local employees, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

Classroom competition
The Springfield area will have over a dozen private school options this fall, and longtime players say they’ve seen an increase in parent inquiries since the SPS announcement. But enrollment hasn’t been as drastic.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in admissions since July,” said Amy Maas, admissions and communications officer at The Summit Preparatory School. “Within the last two weeks, at least, we’ve given dozens and dozens of tours and answered many phone calls.”

Maas said the number of contracts signed in the last month have nearly doubled the typical rate, though she declined to comment on current enrollment numbers. Last year, 162 students were enrolled in the fall, according to SBJ research.

Enrollment for the upcoming year dipped in the spring as parents considered how COVID-19 would impact the fall, but Maas said the school is expecting more parents to decide soon. Average tuition is $8,600 for the year, she said. “We have seen a dramatic increase and swing in the positive side in enrollment since May,” she said.

“We know the demand is there, and parents are still considering their options.”

The Summit and Greenwood Laboratory School, which had 386 enrolled, are the largest area private schools that are not faith-based institutions, according to SBJ research.

At the faith-based Gloria Deo Academy, 524 students are signed on for the year, up 22% from fall 2019. Development Director Wendy Wright said the school is selective in the students it accepts for its faith-based, classical curriculum.

“If someone is applying just to escape COVID-19 situations, then it won’t be a good fit for us,” she said. “They need to be here for the right reasons.”


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