Faced with the recession and rising tuition, are more parents at area private schools and their diocesan counterparts transferring their children to public schools to ease the strain on their pocketbooks?

Maybe.

School officials say it is difficult to measure the effect of the economy on enrollment because other factors are involved, including a declining number of school-age children and a long-term drop in the number of children in nonpublic schools.

But for Jacqui Coughlin and John Dewees, the answer is yes.

The couple's two daughters attended St. Laurence School in Upper Darby until this year. Coughlin lost her job at a car-rental company and is still looking; "pickings are slim," she said. The family moved to Morton and this fall sent both girls to Springfield district schools.

"It would have been a struggle to afford the tuition," Coughlin said, and in the public schools, both daughters "are doing very well."

Springfield is one of several districts reporting more transfers this year than expected. Meanwhile, in nonpublic schools, the number of pupils is down, and more parents are asking for financial aid.

The Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools said enrollment fell by about 2.9 percent from the last school year for 136 reporting schools. The previous year's decline was about 2 percent, according to Barbara Kraus-Blackney, executive director of the association, which includes schools in eastern and central Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware.

Philadelphia archdiocesan schools experienced a sharper loss. Enrollment fell by 5.7 percent, the largest one-year percentage drop in more than a decade.

On the public school side, enrollment in the Coatesville Area School District went up by about 2.2 percent, or 146 students - about half from parochial or other private schools. "Financial issues" were often cited as a reason for the transfers, Superintendent Richard Como said in an e-mail.

The West Chester Area School District reported 100 transfers from private and parochial schools.

Bucks County's Pennridge district had more than 100 such transfers, and Delaware County's Springfield district also saw many new arrivals from parochial schools. The same was also true in Chester County's Great Valley district, where enrollment overshot projections by about 100, and in South Jersey, where Deptford Township schools saw a boost in pupils making the parochial-to-public switch.

"Deptford schools have had 38 students transfer from parochial schools into our district since the end of the '08-'09 school year," Superintendent Joseph Canataro wrote in an e-mail. He said the economy was the cause.

The Philadelphia School District does not track transfers from nonpublic schools, spokesman Vincent Thompson said. District enrollment fell by 2,404 this year, and charter school enrollment in the city rose by 1,672.

Private and Catholic school officials said they had little doubt that the economy was taking a toll. "Families have tough decisions to make - they must pay the heat, they must pay the mortgage," said Mary Rochford, superintendent of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's school system. "Sometimes there isn't enough left to pay tuition."

Steve Piltch, head of the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, blamed some of the school's loss of 35 students this year on "economic realities." He said: "When you don't have the resources, necessity can become luxury pretty quickly."

Not all private school rosters are shrinking. The Haverford School in Montgomery County is bigger than ever this year, said headmaster Joe Cox. "In tough times, education is an even more valuable commodity," he added.

Still, with tuition topping $20,000 in many private schools and $5,100 in the Philadelphia Archdiocese's, parents are carefully weighing the value of a private education against the balance in their accounts.

Robert Limroth, the father of three in the Springfield district, said all his children had gone or would be going to Springfield High School in ninth grade after attending school through eighth grade at a local Catholic school, St. Francis of Assisi. "It's not so much the current recession as the overall cost of the education," Limroth said. Instead of spending savings on high school tuition, he said, his family "figured it was better to have it go toward a college education."

This year's enrollment figures are seen in the context of gradual long-term declines at private and parochial schools.

Enrollment in Pennsylvania's religious and independent schools has fallen from 331,020 in 1999-2000 to 256,617 last school year, a drop of about 22 percent.

Philadelphia archdiocesan schools had 106,110 students in 1999-2000; this year, there are 72,310, a decrease of almost 32 percent.

Some of the declines are likely due to the shrinking number of school-age children in Pennsylvania.

Though the state's population is increasing slightly, the number of children 5 to 19 fell by about 109,000 between 2000 and 2008, according to census figures. Public school enrollment statewide is expected to decline at least until 2015, though the number of school-age children in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs has gone up slightly because of population growth.

In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the steady decline in enrollment has roughly paralleled a drop in the number of baptisms.

Whatever the reason for this year's drop, the recession has sparked a rise in requests for financial aid from parents seeking to keep their children in private schools.

In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, requests for aid are up, officials said, while the amount the archdiocese gives - $12 million for high schools this year - is about the same. About 1,500 of 17,900 high school students - 41 percent of those who sought aid - got some money.

In the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools, just over 23 percent of families with children in 86 reporting schools got financial aid averaging $12,435, Kraus-Blackney said. That's down slightly in both percentage and dollar amount from the year before, when 102 schools sent in information.

Several area private schools say they are being asked for more and are giving more.

At the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, 8 percent more applicants - 45 percent of those applying - requested financial aid this year, said communications director Leslie Pfeil. In all, 23 percent of Baldwin pupils get some aid.

At Haverford, Cox said, 21 families that did not get aid last year asked for and got it this year.

"Obviously, if families have been with you, you want to keep them with you," he said. "They're making long-term investments with us, and we're making long-term investments in them. So far, we can absorb the extra cost, but it could become a problem. It's a trend to keep an eye on."

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy
at 610-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Rita Giordano contributed to this article.