With fierce battles over property taxes and teacher walkouts erupting at neighboring public schools this spring, quietly prepared for a busy summer and record fall.
The South Huntington Catholic high school, the largest on Long Island with an enrollment of 2,600 students, has become an unlikely haven for families seeking refuge from districts slashing budgets and services.
How did a private school actually grow during an economic downturn?
It’s as obvious as the army of youngsters seen scurrying around campus on a hot Tuesday morning. St. Anthony’s Summer Camp boasts more than 1,000 children, many just preparing for the fourth grade.
“Here’s an example of how the economic downturn has profited us,” explained Bro. Gary Cregan, the school’s principal. “Families who might normally send their kids to $700 sleep-away camp for economic reasons are now keeping their kids local.”
The Friars charge $275 per 4-day session, a bargain by comparison.
Cutbacks have also forced public schools to eliminate drivers ed and curtail summer school sessions. St. Anthony’s has seen a spike in both programs as a result. It’s one silently effective way the school wins fresh recruits.
“We don’t do a hard sell,” Friars said before a morning session with 200 campers. “We just roll out the school.”
Long Island is home to nine of the top 90 public high schools in the nation, according to Newsweek’s annual rankings. That means St. Anthony’s needed to offer more than a stellar education to survive.
So Cregan and the Board of Trustees green lit a $40 million expansion seven years ago, one that saw major construction move forward through the gloom and doom of 2008. The 145,000 square foot Student Center, replete with air conditioned indoor track and turf field, as well as state-of-the-art weight room, now dominates the landscape.
“St. Bonaventure once wrote, ‘Capture the heart and the mind will follow,’” Cregan said. “This place goes til 10 at night regularly. We want to capture a young person’s heart.”
That’s why senior Sigfrido Sepulveda, 17, has made the daily commute from Washington Heights since his freshman year. Sepulveda wakes up at 4 a.m. on school days, treks to the 181st Street Station to catch the A Train to Penn Station. He boards the 5:47 LIRR train bound for Huntington. Then Sepulveda meets up with classmates coming from the opposite direction – Stony Brook. They ride a school bus the rest of the way.
What motivates that maddening commute with so many other options close at hand?
“It was definitely the community,” said Sepulveda, who does not play a sport at this sports-crazy school. “This place is huge. People told me it would be impossible to make friends. That’s not true. There are plenty of people here who I share a common interest with and want to be friends with. You are not going to be alone here.”
“Nobody sits at the lunch table alone,” said John Tozzi, a senior from nearby North Babylon. He was on campus in the heat of the summer for a college essay workshop.
While the school has remained steadfast in its ambition, Cregan conceded the recession did force him to be more flexible with tuition, which is set at $8,500 for the upcoming year. The school will allot $600,000 towards financial aid, up 33 percent from 2008.
“Sociologists show that in recession periods Catholic schools are viewed as luxuries and not necessities,” Cregan said. “There was a dip in the last big recession in 1987-88. In this recession I contend that people still view a Catholic education as a necessity and not a luxury. And that’s worth a study as to what has shifted in American culture.”
Yes, more families today are asking for aid. But more are vying to attend St. Anthony’s. A private school education is as much in demand as ever in this mostly-affluent New York suburb.
After all, Sepulveda wants to study medicine and Tozzi recently visited Boston College.
Cregan made one more point as he balanced religiosity and economic reality. He told the story of a student, now a senior, who appealed for a manageable payment plan. She received no support from family and promised to pay for a St. Anthony’s education by bussing tables.
Cregan set up a payment plan of $50 per month. It will stretch to the year 2029.
“Any reasonable administrator would understand that this young woman required our kindness,” Cregan said. “I’m not going to say no. She pays us in cash from her restaurant tips. We’re going to be around in 17 years. So I’ll collect my tuition.”
That’s economic smarts, Catholic style.