Shawna Durham says pulling her two youngest children from St. Joseph's, a private Catholic school in Kennewick, was one of the options she and her husband considered when the recession hit and her family's budget tightened.
But both of her children pleaded with her to not move them from the school.
The school was their family, they told her and husband Doug, a manager at Areva. They decided to let their kids remain at St. Joe's, and the family made other cuts to their spending.
"We made our decision, and we've never regretted it," said Durham, a part-time surgical assistant.
Never miss a local story.
More than 2,100 students attend private schools in the Tri-Cities, a number that steadily has grown in the past three years. Many more attend private schools throughout the Mid-Columbia, from Sunnyside to Othello to Walla Walla.
Private school officials are quick to point out that their schools academically excel and produce students more likely to continue their education past high school and get good jobs.
However, they point to something else as being a big factor behind their growth: adherence to family values, Christian-based curriculum and programs, and a strong sense of community.
"Parents know what they're getting when they come here," said Ralph LeCompte, principal of St. Joseph's, which teaches students in preschool through eighth grade.
Eleven state-approved private schools operate in the Tri-Cities. All of them incorporate Christian faith as part of their curriculum, though they all differ in denomination, ranging from Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Lutheran and evangelical.
Those schools don't include Montessori preschools that operate in the area.
Montessori education does not require a religious perspective as part of the curriculum, though some private religious schools, such as St. Joseph's, offer Montessori preschool.
Private schools are not subject to the same educational requirements as public school peers.
However, they must have their students in school for a minimum of 180 days per year, as public schools do; hire state-certified teachers to teach courses that are offered in public schools; and teach basic school subjects and skills, such as mathematics, science and language arts. The state also monitors private schools through several reports they must file each year.
Tests measure success
Though private schools aren't required to use state standardized testing of students, some do or use other standardized tests to measure student success.
LeCompte said his school used Washington's standardized testing until 2007 because of financial considerations. Private schools must pay fees to the state to administer the tests. The school now anecdotally tracks student success by hearing about how they do on college entrance exams, such as the SAT or the ACT, after they move on to high school.
The schools aren't required to provide results on their school's test scores. Some administrators noted that the small sample size for each grade in their schools can swing average scores far in either direction. However, all said that most of their students were at or exceeding benchmarks for their grade level.
"We were well above the state average every time," LeCompte said of his school's past standardized test results.
The National Center for Education Statistics indicated in a 2006 report that fourth- and eighth-graders from private schools generally outperformed public school peers in mathematics and reading tests. However, researchers said including other variables, such as race and economic status, along with the scores could reduce the advantage of privately educated children.
Some subjects are taught differently than they would be in a public school. Neither the evangelical Protestant Liberty Christian School nor Tri-Cities Prep, a Catholic high school, provides information about contraception when teaching sex education, unlike public schools. At Bethlehem Lutheran and Liberty Christian, creation theory and intelligent design are taught alongside evolution as theories to explain the origin of life on Earth.
"To not teach both, in my view, would be tantamount to teaching our students there's only one political party," said Joe Morgan, co-superintendent and high school principal at Liberty Christian.
David and Ines Geist of Richland have their sons, ages 14 and 11, at the Catholic Christ the King School in Richland, where they have attended since preschool.
"It's pretty intense," David Geist said of the school's curriculum. "They run their kids through a pretty strong program."
The family is now looking to send their oldest, Phillip, to Tri-Cities Prep for his freshman year in the fall.
All the area's private schools require students to take religion courses as part of their curriculum.
The Catholic schools require participation in religious services such as Mass and confession, while Bethlehem Lutheran and Liberty Christian have their students attend chapel services on a weekly basis.
Not all private school students subscribe to the faith their school teaches. LeCompte said the bulk of his school's students come from Catholic families, but several belong to Protestant denominations, another is Muslim, and the parents of a few students are atheists.
"When you're a kid growing up, those differences don't matter so much," he said.
Arlene Jones, principal at Tri-Cities Prep, said about 80 percent of her school's 162 students are Catholic. The school's bylaws specify an 80 percent Catholic enrollment limit.
"We want to be open to all faiths," she said, adding that in recent years, Tri-Cities Prep had a Mormon student and another who was an outspoken atheist.
Nevertheless, the area's private schools are unabashed in their mission to teach and promote their faith.
Jones said part of the mission of Tri-Cities Prep in limiting the Catholic student population is to evangelize to students who are not Catholic.
Durham, a Baptist, said she never has been concerned about what her children were learning at St. Joseph's. The religious lessons are ecumenical and not doctrinal, and she and her husband just let their kids know when what they learn in school is different from their own beliefs.
"They'll take the kids to confession, and we support that. But we also tell our kids that they can talk to God on their own," she said.
Private education isn't cheap, and families pay at least a few thousand dollars a year to keep just one of their children enrolled, while also paying property and sales taxes that benefit the state's public school districts.
St. Joseph's charges $4,060 per year for a student to attend its school whose family is not a member of the parishes of St. Joseph's or Holy Spirit. Parish families pay $3,220 for a single student.
For two kids for a non-parish family, the rate is $6,270; parish families pay $4,850.
The amount stays flat after three or more children are enrolled at a time, with nonparish families paying a maximum of $7,860 per year for all enrolled children and parish families paying $6,300.
Tri-Cities Prep offers tuition on a sliding scale, based upon family income and other conditions, such as whether a family is paying for another sibling's education elsewhere.
Sixty-five percent of the school's students receive some form of financial aid, but that means the other 35 percent are paying up to $7,700 per year plus $800 in annual fees.
School officials don't deny the recession has affected enrollment. Liberty Christian had as many as 600 students several years ago, but those numbers fell off, said Lisa Godwin, the school's development director. The school has seen growing enrollment the past few years but currently has 400 students.
Eric Haan, principal at Bethlehem Lutheran, said his school was seeking to keep tuition increases to a minimum each year to ease the burden on families. Jones said Tri-Cities Prep has never turned away a student for financial reasons and works with families when there's a struggle to pay tuition.
LeCompte said he has had minor pay adjustments made for a few families but many have tightened their belts elsewhere in their family budgets. That's exactly what Shawna Durham said her family did to keep her two youngest children at St. Joseph's.
"We don't drive new cars or take cruises or go on fancy vacations to Hawaii," she said.
Coleen and Steve Drinkard of Richland had wanted to enroll their son Daniel at Liberty Christian for kindergarten but didn't for financial reasons.
Those concerns still are there. They are re-evaluating as their 10-year-old son prepares to enter junior high, where more liberal viewpoints are taught at that level, Steve Drinkard said.
"If we're faithful to pursuing a path to honor God, he'll provide a way,"he said. "It may be a little harder for us, but I think we'll make it."
Many of the schools are holding their own. Haan said it is a misconception that private schools are wealthy, when in fact most survive on the tuition provided by students and donations. Several schools have built or renovated facilities after years of saving.
In the end, many families and students stay in private school because of the tight-knit communities they foster.
Private school teachers and administrators point out that it often is difficult for families to feel connected to a public school, especially as their children go up in grade level, because those schools are large, with perhaps as many as 250 to 300 students for a single elementary school. An area private school might have that many students between preschool and eighth grade.
Erika Cervantes attended public schools in Pasco before her mother placed her at the Catholic St. Patrick's School beginning in fourth grade.
Cervantes, now a sophomore at Tri-Cities Prep, said she can't imagine not being at a private school now, to the disappointment of her friends attending Pasco and Chiawana high schools.
"They always ask me to move over, but I don't want to," she said.
The same goes for senior Connor Smith, Tri-Cities Prep's student body president. He knows almost every student at his school by name. By comparison, his friends in public school often talk about cliques.
"I know it sounds clich to say we're one big family, but we do strive for that here," he said.
Parents said that family atmosphere of a private school makes the faith-based curriculum stick and will be there for their child when they leave private school, regardless of when that is in their education.
"If and when they ever stray, they'll come back to those roots," said Debi Cheatwood, who has two children enrolled at St. Joseph's.