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Private schools seeing growth

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The third-graders at SS. Francis and Clare Catholic School will have the space they need next school year for lessons and assemblies and to celebrate birthdays and other special events with their classmates.

But the Center Grove area private school needs to add classrooms so it doesn’t run out of space for those students as they get older.

SS. Francis and Clare has 550 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school has two classrooms for each grade level from fourth through eighth grade and three classrooms for each level for kindergarten through third grade.

School officials want to add 10 classrooms by the start of the 2015-2016 school year to ensure the school will have enough room for its younger students as they advance to the upper grades, Principal Betty Popp said.

Greenwood Christian Academy finished construction in August on a two-year project that added 11 classrooms to the private school.

The new classrooms were necessary after more than 100 new students started attending the private school three years ago. The school will have 530 students this school year but has room for up to 700 because of the new classrooms, and no new construction is planned, Headmaster Bruce Peters said.

Private schools across Indiana have been filling up, partly because more families are participating in the state’s school choice voucher program.

The program uses taxpayer money to help pay private school tuition for students from low- and some middle-income families. More than 19,800 families across the state received vouchers last school year, compared with about 3,900 families when the program launched in 2011, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

More local students have been receiving vouchers as well. Last year, 289 Johnson County students received a voucher to pay for some of their private school tuition, more than six times the 42 students who received vouchers three years ago.

Those students all came from Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant, Franklin and Greenwood schools, and students who leave public schools for private one take $5,000 to $6,000 each in state funding with them.

Vouchers aren’t the primary reason local schools have more students, Popp and Peters said. Instead, more families are becoming interested in private education and learning about the schools, they said.

“It’s a good thing, it’s a great thing,” Popp said. “It means that in this area, a lot of families that wanted to have a Catholic education are now able to do that.”

The money that private schools receive from the vouchers primarily helps pay for employees’ salaries. Greenwood Christian Academy wants to be careful how much money it receives from the state to pay for those costs. That way, if state lawmakers ever decide to reduce or eliminate the voucher program, the school won’t lose a significant amount of money needed to pay teachers, Peters said.

Ninety of SS. Francis and Clare’s students, or about 16 percent, receive vouchers to help pay for tuition.

Greenwood Christian Academy has a cap on the number of students who can receive vouchers; the cap was at 20 percent last year and will be raised to 30 percent this fall, Peters said.

“We want to make sure our income is balanced and be sure we’re not relying on the government to keep our doors open,” Peters said.

Public schools receive property tax dollars that they use to renovate their buildings and also can borrow up to $10 million for larger projects at elementary schools and up to $20 million for projects at high schools without voters’ approval.

At SS. Francis and Clare, any money used to build new classrooms would come from the tuition families pay, voucher dollars and other support, such as donations. This year, tuition for a single student at SS. Francis and Clare was $4,500, up 3 percent from last school year, Popp said.

Right now, SS. Francis and Clare officials are working with the archdiocese to get approval to construct the 10 classrooms. The private school also would like to build child care rooms for infants and toddlers as part of the project, Popp said.

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