A sign promoting school spirit placed outside of the front office. (Photo by Arijit Trivedi)

Enrollment stays over 500 with online learning

Despite going online, Country Day started the school year on Sept. 1 with 503 total K-12 students (94 new students and 55 new families) — only four fewer than the previous year. The high school and lower school enrollment increased while the middle school decreased, said Dana Vargo, director of admission and enrollment.

High School

144

136 students last year

Middle School

118

134 students last year

Lower School

241

237 students last year

The school is limited to an overall capacity of 544, but this year, the maximum is “around 525” because some grades were restricted due to COVID-19, Head of School Lee Thomsen said. 

The highest number of students possible in lower school is 250, in the middle school, the limit is 150 (50 per grade) and the cap for the high school is 144 (36 per grade).

Vargo attributed these numbers to COVID-19 guidelines. About 20 fewer seats were available due to COVID-mandated cohort sizes.

The school was prepared to host 440 to 510 students, Thomsen said. Some families might have been chased away at the thought of paying full tuition for an “unknown experience,” he said.

The school also anticipated that some families who had not had a good experience in public schools or other private schools would look to Country Day, Thomsen said.

A return to on-campus learning could change some families’ minds, he added.

Pre-K student Stella Wilson participates in a class activity. (Photo by Mitzi Mapa-Contes)

“We are always asking ourselves this: ‘How many families would send their kids to campus even when we’re allowed to open?’” he said. “That’s an important number for us because we need to be able to support kids who are in the classrooms and kids who would opt to stay home.”

Because schools like Country Day have the ability to do that and public schools can’t, that could increase interest in private schools, Thomsen said.

“It’s always a comparison. If and when we are allowed to bring the whole school back, how will our learning compare to these bigger schools? We have the good fortune of being a small school, so we can recreate a pretty normal Country Day experience even with limiting size and social distancing; whereas, public schools can’t do that with 35 kids in a classroom.”

Emailed surveys were sent to lower, middle and high school students and parents to find out what they thought about the online learning process in spring and how Country Day should change it for the fall.

Head of High School Brooke Wells said the school is trying to raise the high school capacity by 36 students, increasing it to 180 and raising the school’s overall capacity to 580 students.

One hundred forty-four students has been the goal for the last few years. It’s wonderful to get there.”
— Brooke Wells

“One hundred forty-four students has been the goal for the last few years,” said Wells, who has been head of high school for the last six years. “It’s wonderful to get there.”

Expanding the high school achieves a balance between intimacy and the ability to offer even a greater number of strong and robust programs, specifically the arts, sports and theater, Wells said.

Country Day’s personal aspect will still be maintained if enrollments go up. Each grade would have about 45 students and there would be three sections of 15 for core classes instead of two sections with 19 students, which could increase the connection between students and teachers, he said.

To prepare for this, the high school would have to hire more faculty members, Wells said.

Head of Middle School Rommel Loria said the middle school takes feedback and learns from what other schools in the area are doing to improve its connection with students. Students are now required to meet with their advisors every day, so teachers and students spend time together outside of class. 

“We have also created a time for electives and study hall at the end of the day, which gives them structure, and students are able to pursue something which they’re passionate about,” Loria said.

Head of Lower School Maisae Affour reorganized the lower school to prevent any risks of students contracting COVID-19.

The Pre-K was split into two cohorts, and kindergarten, fourth and fifth grades into three cohorts each, Affour said.

The first, second and third grades were capped at 16 students each, based on classroom sizes. Country Day could have accommodated more students, but they wanted to be extra careful, she said.

The lower school also aligned different grade levels together and scheduled orientations with students and teachers.

“Even before school started, students were accustomed to their classes, met their teachers and learned about their expectations,” Affour said.

“Siblings in different classes can have break, lunch and special reading time together — where we know that everyone in the lower school is reading a book at that specific moment.”

Vargo said admissions is very fluid, and waitlists change every year. Currently, Country Day has space available in kindergarten, fourth, sixth and eighth grades. 

“Qualified applicants are given the option of being placed in a wait pool when the respective grade or class is at maximum capacity,” she said.

3.4%

Increase in tuition

38%

Percentage of students who receive financial aid

This year, tuition has increased by 3.4%, which is “within range for typical year-to-year tuition increases,” Vargo said, adding that 38% of students receive financial aid.

Thomsen said remote learning costs more because classes are taught in smaller cohorts, the number of staff hired increased and teachers were given online teaching tools, such as webcams.

“When you look at teaching remotely during a pandemic, there’s a false perception by parents who believe that less class time costs less,” he said.

Director of marketing and communications Emily Allshouse said the school’s advertising efforts are paying off. Last year, she ran targeted ads for Pre-K, kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades and increased communications between grades for a smoother transition from lower to middle school and middle to high school.

“Retention of current families is a big part of our success,” Allshouse said.

Thomsen said the school is continuing to frame its messages around its motto: Wherever we are, we are Country Day.

— By Sanjana Anand

Originally published in the Sept. 22 issue of the Octagon.