Columbus Christian School launched several marketing strategies last year to increase enrollment this fall, including yard signs, car window decals and media advertisements.

But enrollment at the private school on Indiana Avenue serving preschoolers through high school seniors was the beneficiary of a late surge just before school started by something entirely out of its control.

After the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. school board added gender identity to its list of protected classes in its anti-discrimination policy in late May, with discussion continuing all summer, some local parents began to express concerns about the policy opening the door for predators to claim to be transgender only to gain access to the restroom of the opposite sex and assault students in the restrooms.

Although the BCSC policy does not address the use of restroom or locker room facilities, some of the parents said they planned to pull their children out of the public school district as a safety precaution. In some situations, parents chose to enroll their students at Columbus Christian, principal Kendall Wildey said.

Story continues below gallery

Fall enrollment at Columbus Christian is 222, which is 31 more students than it ended the previous school year with. That’s an increase of 16 percent.

Columbus Christian’s enrollment gains include three new seniors this fall among its 59 high school students, Wildey said.

Most high school students do not want to change schools during their senior year, but some families made the decision to transfer their children out of the public schools late in their academic careers because of their concerns about BCSC’s anti-discrimination policy, he said.

Although Wildey said he has never dealt with a situation in which a student of one gender wanted to use a restroom designated for the other gender, if that situation were to occur at Columbus Christian, the principal said he would approach it from a Christian perspective.

That means students would be encouraged to embrace the person God created them to be, Wildey said. If a student were struggling with their gender identity, the principal said that student would be encouraged to find ways to be content with how they were created, rather than trying to change their identity.

Columbus Christian is one of two area parochial schools offering high school classes for Bartholomew County families. The other is Trinity Lutheran High School, located just south of the Bartholomew County line in Seymour, which has 145 students enrolled this fall — similar to the number that has attended most years among the past five.

School leaders say small class sizes often as few as 10 to 12 students per class and Christian-based education programs set them apart from public schools.

That type of dedication to Christian ideals is the biggest draw for parents to both of the parochial high schools, principals for the two parochial schools said.

Trinity Lutheran principal Ben Stellwagen said each of his students take a daily theology course that teaches Biblical principles in the Lutheran tradition.

All students also attend a weekly chapel service each Friday, when the school’s theology teacher — who also is a chaplain — leads the school in worship, Stellwagen said.

Columbus Christian students also attend chapel services together, and Wildey said his goal is for the lessons of the chapel services to permeate throughout the entire school culture.

For example, in Columbus Christian science classes, Wildey said his students will learn about all theories of the creation of life on Earth, including both creationism and the theories of evolution. However, during those lessons, the school also emphasizes the Biblical story of the one-week creation of the Earth, he said.

Academic opportunities

Although the infusion of Christian beliefs into academics at the two private high schools sets their curriculum apart from public schools, the principals said their students are still receiving the same quality of education they would receive elsewhere.

For example, Trinity Lutheran offers Advanced Placement English and biology classes and a dual-credit program that can enable students to get a head start on their college credits before they graduate high school.

Columbus Christian also offers Advanced Placement classes, but Wildey described those classes as blended courses that require online work.

Additionally, both schools boasted 100 percent graduation rates in 2015.

Stellwagen attributed that achievement at Trinity Lutheran to the school’s full-time counselor and full-time resource teacher, a position he previously held before stepping into the role of principal this year.

The educators in those positions are charged with identifying potential barriers to learning right at the beginning of a student’s time at Trinity Lutheran, then working with that student to find educational techniques that will help them succeed.

Further, Stellwagen said Trinity Lutheran has a STAR — skills, tutorials and resources — program that allows students to meet with their peers in their grade once a week to hone the skills that will help them succeed after graduation.

At Columbus Christian, Wildey said individualized student attention make it nearly impossible for struggling students to slip through the cracks, which contributes to the school’s high graduation rate.

Aside from Christian education and basic academic standards, the private school principals said they also offer elective classes that allow students to pursue their personal interests, although Wildey said his school is not able to offer as many electives as a public school might.

Classes such as personal finance, anatomy and physiology, weight training and advanced physical education are on the roster at Columbus Christian, while industry-focused classes such as engineering, robotics, welding and shop classes are offered at Trinity Lutheran.

And outside of academics, the two private high schools also offer extracurricular activities.

Trinity Lutheran is home to 21 sports teams, 16 clubs, a fine arts program and FFA, Stellwagen.

For its part, Columbus Christian offers sports including volleyball, soccer, cross country, basketball, cheerleading, baseball and golf, as well as other standard clubs such as student council, National Honor Society, spelling bowl and math bowl.

Fee structure

Unlike public schools, both private high schools charge tuition fees for students to attend their classes. But the parochial principals said they believe their prices are a bargain for the high-quality education students will receive.

High school students at Columbus Christian are required to pay $5,785 in tuition per year, while tuition costs for preschool through eighth grade students range from $1,500 to about $5,000 a year, lower than the tuition prices at most other private elementary schools in the area.

At Trinity Lutheran, tuition costs vary based on whether a student’s family is a member of the local association of Lutheran churches. Members pay $6,150, while non-members pay $7,450.

Although those prices are higher than what Columbus Christian charges, Stellwagen said Trinity Lutheran students see a significant return on their investment in education after they leave the school.

He pointed to data he recently complied that showed a Trinity Lutheran student might pay $23,354 in tuition over the course of four years, but could also receive as much as $36,111 in scholarship funds at the end of their Trinity Lutheran education. That type of financial aid for post-secondary education shows that attending Trinity Lutheran can have major financial benefits for a student’s future, Stellwagen said.

Additionally, each school offers its own financial aid packages to help families who may not be able to cover the cost of a private school education on their own.

Both schools participate in the state school choice program, which provides tuition vouchers to low-income families who want alternatives to traditional public schools. Additionally, the schools offer other in-house and private scholarship options for students who meet certain academic and financial requirements.

Private school enrollment trends

Columbus Christian School (Preschool-12th grade)

2011-2012: 154 students

2012-2013: 181 students

2013-2014: 197 students

2014-2015: 233 students

2015-2016: 191 students

Trinity Lutheran High School (9th-12th grade)

2011-2012: 146 students

2012-2013: 155 students

2013-2014: 176 students

2014-2015: 172 students

2015-2016: 157 students

Source: Indiana Department of Education

About the schools

Columbus Christian School

Address:  3170 Indiana Ave., Columbus

Phone: 812-372-3780

Grades: Preschool – 12th grade

2016 fall enrollment: 222 students total, 59 high school students

Tuition: Preschool – $1,500; kindergarten – $4,565; elementary school – $5,082; middle/high school – $5,785

Trinity Lutheran High School

Address: 7120 N County Road 875 E, Seymour

Phone: 812-524-8547

Grades: 9-12

2016 fall enrollment: 145 students

Tuition: $6,150 for association members, $7,450 for non-members, 20 percent discount for second child, 25 percent discount for third child

SHARE
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.