John O’Herron has a job as an insurance defense attorney at the ThompsonMcMullan law firm, but he also has five kids at Saint Benedict’s, a single-sex Catholic high school in Richmond that charges an average tuition of $18,500. Distressed by the high cost of private school, he co-founded the Cardinal Newman Academy, which will open this fall with an entering class of three students.
The business plan is to recruit families whose kids attend Catholic elementary schools but find the cost of attending the three Catholic prep schools in the region to be unaffordable. A 2015 feasibility report, O’Herron tells Richmond BizSense, “showed us a lot of things, the most prominent thing was the level of dissatisfaction with high-school options. It was for varied reasons, but a big driver of that was affordability.”
Cardinal Newman’s tuition this year is $8,750 — half the price of Benedictine and Saint Gertrude’s, cheaper even than $13,843 per student spent by the City of Richmond in the 2017 school year, and even less expensive than the roughly $9,600 per pupil spent by Chesterfield and Henrico counties.
To keep tuition affordable, the school is keeping a tight rein on costs. The school is renting space from the Bon Air Baptist Church. Also, says O’Herron:
“We’re not offering the amenities other private schools offer. And we’re proud to stand up and say that,” he said. “We’re not going to have a football team, or a swimming pool, or a golf course or a tennis court.
“We are about educating young people. And we’ll have extracurriculars and athletics, and offer a high-school experience. But every decision as we grow will be made with affordability in mind.”
The academy’s curriculum has six core courses: English, history, mathematics, theology, foreign language and science. Fine arts and physical education are offered as additional courses.
The plan is to start with a ninth grade class, and then to add a class each year for the next three years. O’Herron would like to grow to 30 to 50 students within five years, and to between 300 and 500 in the long term. “Realistically, starting a new school with a small student body, your incoming revenue is really low,” he says. “It allows you as an institution to navigate, learn from mistakes and strategize.”
Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll be interested to see how Cardinal Newman fares. I am totally sympathetic to the problem of runaway private-school tuition, especially at elite prep schools, which, in their never-ending quest to erect new buildings, expand sports programs, and enrich the student experience, are becoming increasingly unaffordable to the middle-class. Private education needs a stripped-down financial model that stresses academic preparation and the inculcation of values. Natatoriums and rock-climbing walls are frivolous luxuries. If Cardinal Newman can provide a superior education at the $8,750-per-year price point, it might even serve as an example to Virginia’s public schools as well.
Virginia’s public schools are mired in bureaucracy and politics. Virginia’s elite private schools are running on the same race-for-prestige treadmill that afflicts the nation’s elite universities. Middle America yearns for an alternative. Cardinal Newman, or something like it, just might be the answer.There are currently no comments highlighted.