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Private school enrollment remains stable; many growing rapidly

Jackson — Overall, private schools are doing well in Mississippi. The Mississippi Private School Association (MPSA) has 122 member schools with 40,000 students and 3,500 certified personnel.

“Some schools are growing rapidly and some are joining the association every year,” said David Derrick, executive director of the MPSA. “I think we’re doing well, but it’s different in different parts of the state.”

Schools joining the association must meet stringent criteria, the first of which is to be approved for accreditation. The MPSA has its own accreditation commission who visits schools and validates that they meet the standards. The 10-member commission is made up of two representatives from each of the state’s five geographical areas.

“Our accreditation standards are almost identical to the state’s standards,” Derrick said. “It’s an accountability process that candidate schools must meet before they can join. It’s a focal step. Member schools are re-evaluated every five years.”

Currently, the association has five candidate schools that have three years to meet accreditation standards. That status allows the schools to be involved with MPSA on a limited basis. Schools can request a visit from the commission at any time.

“It they don’t meet the criteria, they are dropped as candidate schools,” he said. “This allows young, fledgling schools just starting out to be involved, but they don’t have full privileges.”

Member schools serve a large student demographic, including those primarily serving African-American students. Those include Christ Missionary & Industrial (CM&I), St. Peter Christian Academy and Mother Goose Elementary in Jackson, Saints Academy in Lexington and Alpha Christian in Hattiesburg. Derrick says CM&I, founded in 1890, is one of the oldest private schools in the state. It was begun to train ministers and teach vocational skills.

“Our ethnic mix is broader than it once was,” he said. “We’re recognizing that changes need to be made.”

Noting that enrollment trends fluctuate from school to school, the director says some schools go up and down depending on where they are and factors such as plant closings that impact the economy. “Certainly the economy impacts us, but we’ve maintained the overall enrollment level and that’s been stable for the last four years collectively,” he said. “I’m amazed at the stability we’ve maintained.”

Derrick says that stability is due to the quality of the faculty, administrators and boards. He feels that schools with that consistent high quality will be around forever. One member school, Chamberlain-Hunt Academy in Port Gibson, has been in existence since right after the War Between the States.

“The Delta is the most impacted area because the population is declining,” he said, “and it’s an area where the economy has impacted schools the most.”

Although he’s hesitant to single out schools, Derrick said Pillow Academy in Greenwood has done extremely well. Magnolia Heights in Senatobia is growing and feeding off the growth from rapidly-expanding South Haven.

“The school leadership is wonderful and they’ve been able to grow,” he said, “but we have a lot of success stories. Schools have ups and downs like everyone and we want to be an association for any school that can meet our standards regardless of ethnicity. We’re a service agency, and we’ve made ourselves accessible for everyone.”

The Coast is a growing area where Derrick says there seems to be a lot of interest and inquiries. Catholic schools, a long-standing educational option in this area, are not members of the MPSA. They receive accreditation from the State Department of Education. Several member schools experiencing growth include Coast Episcopal, Covenant Christian, Cedar Lake Christian, Westminster and Christian Collegiate.

“We’re really proud of Christian Collegiate,” he said. “It’s a nondenominational K-12 school that has a tremendous amount of potential. They were a candidate school for a year or so and were aggressive about the approval process.”

Presbyterian Christian School in Hattiesburg, K-12, is currently the member school growing the most rapidly with Lamar Christian in Purvis coming along strong, too. It began as a K-8 school and expanded to include high school, a growth pattern most schools follow, Derrick said.

Russell Christian is an up and coming school in Meridian. They are presently a candidate school and have requested a full visit this spring. Tupelo Christian Preparatory is another rapidly growing school and recently built a new elementary facility. Oxford University School has been in Oxford for years and Derrick says it’s an excellent school.

Started as K-8, now they have decided to expand to K-12. In the Jackson metropolitan area, Madison-Ridgeland Academy, Jackson Academy and Jackson Prep are a few of the schools that have been able to grow and thrive.

“We have approximately 10% of the student population in private education,” he said. “The national average is 10% to 11%, so we’re not that different from the rest of the country.”

While public schools decry a lack of adequate funding, Derrick says funding has always been a problem for private schools where it’s driven mostly by tuition and fees. “More and more private schools are getting a 501(c)3 designation so gifts to them are tax deductible,” he said. “As our schools grow and mature collectively, we will see more money from development giving than in the past. We’ll see a balance of development and tuition.”

A former private school principal, Derrick has been involved with the association for 30 years and is in his 14th year as executive director. He says sometimes the word “Christian” in a school’s name may conjure up thoughts of a one-room school with a handful of kids. That is not the case with members of the MPSA.

“I would put their education up against any public education,” he said. “They must meet our standards. When we get them, they’re quality. We have one or two schools a year that go through the process and become accredited, but we get scores of inquiries from people wanting to start schools.”

The association oversees all activities of member schools, including sports, academic competitions, art contests, spelling bees and teacher of the year awards. All schools must attend an annual meeting held in July.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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