Bake sales and car washes may have been just enough to save most of Warwick River Christian School in Newport News, Va.
With enrollment down to 70 students signed up for this coming fall, the 77-year-old Mennonite Church USA-affiliated school had announced in April it would close this summer.
Rather than accept the closure, a group of parents met with the school’s board, who told them $500,000 was needed by June 1 to stay open for another year; $1 million would give two years of stability. The board had raised about $380,000.
Parents started a fundraising website and collected pledges of about $5,345. They went door to door asking for donations. Some tried selling candy.
“They’ve done bake sales and car washes and brought in about $30,000. I think they have some financial backers,” said board chair Danni Clark the day before a May 28 meeting to re-evaluate closing the school.
After the parents and school council of sponsoring churches met May 29, the council decided to keep elementary classes but drop grades 6 to 8. Clark noted those three grades combined had only 14 or 15 students.
“It’s not exactly what we want, but we felt this was the best option for keeping the school open,” he said. “. . . And the plan is if our enrollment does come up, we want to look at the middle school again in the future.”
With declining enrollment, it simply became too challenging to limit tuition increases, despite some students traveling 30 to 45 minutes each way to attend.
The school has been losing 10 to 15 students per year. Warwick River began the 2018-19 year with 83 students.
“We were up to 342 students at one point. We had two classes in every grade in 2008,” Clark said. “By 2010 we were down to 240-something. We lost a hundred with the economic [downturn in the region].
“It’s happening all over the city here. There was a Christian school that closed last year; one closed in Hampton this year. This isn’t a new happening, and the politicians are concerned about it because it puts a bigger burden on the public schools.”
Home to several military installations, the community is reflected in the school’s enrollment.
“Probably 60 percent of our students are nonchurched and list no church affiliation. We’re a true mission,” Clark said. “We have a large military presence in our school, and we teach the Mennonite perspective.”
Warwick River’s three sponsoring churches — Huntington Mennonite, Providence Mennonite and Warwick River Mennonite — are members of Virginia Mennonite Conference.
One Mennonite student is enrolled. Clark said the three supporting Mennonite churches have faced similar declines.
“We only have very few Mennonite families with children,” he said. “Our families are all getting older in our Mennonite community, and that’s part of the problem. The school has really been a mission.”
He believes the Huntington and Warwick River congregations have 70 to 75 attendees each, and Providence has fewer than that.
Some are up, some down
Warwick River isn’t alone in its struggles. Citing declining enrollment over the last 10 years, Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite school announced in March it is closing its Hershey campus, parting ways with its Kraybill campus and reducing staff at other campuses. The consolidation is intended to better match square footage to enrollment numbers.
Quakertown (Pa.) Christian School’s enrollment is down nearly 60 percent over the last 10 years, almost as much as Warwick River’s 68 percent drop.
“As I work with all the Mennonite Schools Council schools, I know there have been stretches across the system,” said Elaine Moyer, Mennonite Education Agency senior director. “As the recession affected tuition and affected families, we started to experience shifts in enrollments.”
About half of MSC’s 23 member schools have grown in the last 10 years; the other half have declined.
Moyer said Hinkletown Mennonite School in Ephrata, Pa., added a high school and has grown by 31 percent over the last 10 years. Ephrata Mennonite School grew by 40 percent and also added a high school. Shalom Christian Academy in Chambersburg, Pa., has been kindergarten through grade 12 for some time and is growing.
Enrollment of MC USA students at MSC preK-12 schools dropped more than 20 percent, to 1,101 students, between fall 2017 and fall 2018. Total enrollment at MSC schools declined from 9,475 in 35 reporting schools in 2009 to 5,675 in 19 reporting schools last fall.
“Each community is sorting out the shift from having a majority of Mennonite families in their school to having less of a majority of Mennonite families,” Moyer said. “When that shift happens, the school begins to imagine itself as a Mennonite school for all, as compared to a Mennonite school for Mennonites.”
At Warwick River, the plan is to focus on the youngest students. Clark said a preschool for 4-year-olds will continue and was never in danger of closing.
“There’s still a need for donations and still a need for students,” he said. “We’ll be pressing for both.”