By Eric Parry
DERRY, N.H. — After 39 years, Calvary Christian School has closed its doors.
John Talley III, senior pastor of Calvary Bible Church, said enrollment has been falling for the last few years. This year it fell to 111, which put the school in financial trouble. Talley attributed the enrollment decline to the poor economy.
"You lose four or five here and four or five there, and it begins to add up," he said.
In June, the East Derry Road school graduated 17 students. In the early part of the decade, Talley said, the school had about 400 students from kindergarten through high school. But then, families started leaving.
The school made changes internally to save money, like cutting teachers' salaries 3 percent last year and laying off the school administrator, a role Talley took on last year.
But last week, Talley decided the school needed to close so officials could return tuition money to families who had already paid for the next school year.
"I didn't want to open and have to close midyear," he said.
Tuition for grades one through five was $5,200, and tuition for grades six through 12 was $5,700. Families with three or more children received a discount on the tuition.
But dropping enrollment isn't just plaguing the Derry school. Some other private religious schools in the area said they are experiencing the same problem, although not as severely.
Salem Christian School Principal Tony Long said bringing families in at the early grades is important. Salem Christian School, which has kindergartners through eighth-graders, costs $4,645 a year.
"We're trying to build our school from the lower grades up," Long said.
In previous years, the school has had full kindergarten classes with 30 students. But this year, there are only 15 kindergartners registered for the fall. The school has 95 students, but officials would ideally like to have 120.
Over the last three or four years, the school has had a slight drop in enrollment. Enrollment was closer to 130 a few years ago, Long said.
"Parents would love to come back, but they can't afford it," Long said.
Mandated public kindergarten has taken its toll on private schools in the area. To combat declining numbers in kindergarten programs, some schools have made changes to make them more convenient for parents. To be more flexible, the Salem school has expanded its preschool program this year into two six-hour blocks, Long said.
The new program allows parents who may work in Boston to drop off their children before work or pick them up later in the day if they have trouble with a typical school schedule.
Some local Catholic school officials said they aren't feeling the economic pinch as much as other private schools.
St. Thomas Aquinas School in Derry has established both a full-day and a half-day kindergarten to give parents options. The school, which has kindergartners through eighth-graders, also has started a prekindergarten program five days a week for 4-year-olds, said Principal Paul Rakiey.
"You have to be pretty creative," Rakiey said.
Mary Moran, superintendent of the state's Catholic schools, said enrollment at New Hampshire's 29 Catholic schools is dipping slightly, but not to the point where schools are closing. Locally, St. Patrick's School in Pelham and St. Joseph's Regional School in Salem both offer kindergarten through eighth grade.
"I haven't seen dramatic changes in our schools," Moran said.
At St. Thomas Aquinas, Rakiey said 182 students are registered for the fall, but he expects a few more to sign up before the end of the summer.
The school conservatively budgeted for 172 students so anything above that means it is in good shape financially, he said.
"I would project we're as healthy as last year, if not better," Rakiey said.
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