Back to School

The Application Boom at Portland's Private Schools

After a year and change of Zoom school, interest in alternatives—especially Catholic education—has skyrocketed.

By Julia Silverman August 4, 2021 Published in the Fall 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

After more than a year of disruption at public schools, many families are jumping ship and seeking out private alternatives.

Image: Mike Novak

By early winter of 2021, Lara’s* middle son was slipping away.

In prepandemic times, he’d been a happy-go-lucky middle schooler—smart but not a grade-grubber, happy to hang out and skateboard with his buddies from his Southwest Portland middle school. But as the months of remote school slipped by, he started losing weight, and losing interest in the world around him, glued to the screen in his small bedroom, where he often didn’t bother to lift the shades to let in the light.

“I did everything—I bribed him, I sat with him, I sometimes did that work for him and turned it in myself, since he would get despondent seeing his crappy grades,” says Lara, who couldn’t always be there during the school day to monitor her son because of work demands. “I don’t let my kids off on stuff, but he became really depressed.”

Remote learning worked for her older son, Lara says. He had a job and drove himself to and from work while keeping up with online learning at his public high school. But by spring, she and her husband had made an anguished decision for their middle child: They would pull him out from public school and enrolling him at a private high school in Beaverton for his freshman year this fall.

 “The emotional health and safety of my child is at risk,” says Lara, who said she’d lost faith that her public school would open without disruption in the fall. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”

Pinpointing exact application numbers at area private schools is impossible. Schools keep that information close to their chests. But talk to any admissions director from a local private school (and Portland Monthly has talked to 61 of them this year; our upcoming fall issue includes the results of our annual private schools survey) and they’ll all tell you the year of distance learning brought a distinct rush of interested applicants to their doorstep.

“The story that came up over and over is that the parents had a window into their own child’s education,” because of distance learning, says Janet Reynoldson, outgoing admissions director at the Arbor School in Tualatin. “They came looking for something more contextualized, more hands-on, more relationship-based.”

It is also hard to precisely trace whether the applicants were coming from public schools, private schools, or home-schooling backgrounds. If the bulk of new admissions this year came from the public school system, that should show up via decreased enrollment when numbers are released this fall, and ultimately less funding, since that is allocated per pupil under the state’s formula.

Some of those students certainly peeled off to area Catholic schools, which are far cheaper than the region’s pedigreed independent schools, tend to offer rolling admissions, making midyear entry possible, and can be found in neighborhoods all over the city and suburbs. They were also among the first to open more broadly when state metrics permitted it in midwinter of 2021, causing a spike in midyear transfer applications. (It helps to have empty churches that can double as makeshift classrooms for social distancing purposes.)

Take St. Rose School in Northeast Portland. In a typical year, principal Christine Penwell says, they might see applications from 70 hopeful families. In 2021, 140 families applied, and this fall, their student body will grow by 50 kids.

“From mid-November to mid-February, I felt like I was meeting with families three times a day over the course of the week,” Penwell says. “I think there was an appreciation for the nimbleness that a smaller community brings. You can make these decisions differently than a bigger system might have to.”

Six different admissions officers said interest especially swelled for incoming third through seventh graders—an age group that’s theoretically old enough to have done Zoom school unsupervised, yet particularly struggled to resist the lure of video games and YouTube during distance learning.

Rachael Ankala, the admissions director at the Montessori School of Beaverton, says the intense interest in later elementary school spots caught her school off-guard.

“For us, our main focus in admissions is to get those age 3-through-6 in the door, and set up the school with structures in places so the families who stay feed the older groups as they move up,” she says. “In the elementary school, we have very few spaces, if any, and they tend to fill up pretty quickly.”

Some families said they felt guilty and torn about pulling out from the public school system. Edie Rogoway, a lawyer who lives in Southwest Portland, says, “If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that my kid would be anything but in public schools, I would have laughed at you.” Her daughter was set to enter Wells-Barnett High School in the fall, she says, but she will be at St. Mary’s Academy instead.

“There is also the issue of feeling that we are abandoning a lot of kids,” Rogoway says. “The reality is that parents who have more resources, a higher education level are the volunteers who make a difference in public schools. From a psychological standpoint, it pains me that we are yet another family that is not going to be able to bridge the gap. But at the end of the day, we all do what is right for our kids.”

*Portland Monthly is not using Lara's last name to protect her family's privacy.