The competition is stiff for private schools.
John Chubb, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, said charter schools and improving public schools can prompt parents to question the value of high-priced independent schools.
Chubb, a longtime educator with experience in private schools, charter schools, think tanks and academia, visited Girls Preparatory School on Friday as part of a national listening tour. The NAIS represents 1,400 nonprofit, private K-12 schools in the United States. Representatives from six Chattanooga schools -- Baylor, Bright School, GPS, McCallie, St. Nicholas and St. Peter's -- were on hand Friday for Chubb's discussion.
While private schools are facing dwindling enrollment, Chubb said, they are full of opportunity.
Independent schools have strong value systems, he said, and instruction rich with opportunities in arts and extracurricular activities. Most offer generous financial aid packages.
"This is a model that has enormous potential, enormous potential -- more potential than our current system of public education, more potential than the charter schools. So when I think about the challenge of the marketplace, I think that in fact we're very well positioned. And I see this in a lot of our schools."
While tuition has skyrocketed at private schools in recent years, Chubb said the schools haven't done enough to improve teacher pay, which now is slightly less on average than that of public school teachers.
Chubb said many successful schools across the country have had to re-imagine themselves and diversify their base of students.
And that may need to happen in Chattanooga, too.
Susan Groesbeck, interim head of school at GPS, said the community is changing. There is a rich tradition of private schools here, but transplants are constantly arriving for jobs at Amazon, Volkswagen and Unum.
"These are folks who don't grow up with the names on the tip of their tongues," she said. "So we have to let them know that we're here."
That means private schools need to work both at introducing themselves to newcomers but also re-introducing themselves to people who have never considered private institutions.
Chubb said the independent schools here can work together to win students.
"The main competition is not against one another," Chubb said. "We need to expand the pie."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.