The upward trend continues for private K-12 schools in Arkansas and across the nation. In recent years, nonpublic alternatives have been on the rise as families seek smaller class size, specific educational goals and personal spiritual preferences in education. With almost 100 schools under the umbrella of Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association (ANSAA), nearly 18,000 students attended Arkansas private schools in the 2021-22 school year.


According to Kristine Grelle, the executive director of ANSAA, the organization has recently seen steady growth in student enrollment. “Although schools do close periodically in the state,” she says, “the last couple of years, we have had over 5% increase in student enrollment in our ANSAA schools.”


Last year, Shiloh Christian School’s president Keith McDaniel told Arkansas Money & Politics that the school had reached an enrollment of more than 1,000 K-12 students and that he was expecting to hit record enrollment. He noted this was a positive phenomenon for all private schools, saying “I think it’s exciting for private education across Arkansas. There’s a lot of interest all over the state.”


Clayton Marsh, the founding head of Thaden School in Bentonville, has experienced a similar trend at his school. He explained that a jump in enrollment a few years ago had happened at the start of the COVID pandemic but had continued even after the emergency tapered off. “I think that during the pandemic, many families came to appreciate the special value of independent school education because in particular the small class sizes allowed faculty to better support students,” he said. “A lot of individualized attention and individual support was so important to help students get through that very challenging time”


Schools that bring Diversity


Aside from the preference for smaller class sizes, Marsh has also seen how parents seek and value the diversity that Thaden, in particular, is able to offer. “For us, first and foremost, it’s the quality of the faculty,” he says. “If you spend time on our website looking at our faculty, you will see that we have recruited them from all corners of the United States and even some have come internationally. They bring the campus a broad range of educational backgrounds and regional identities and other forms of diversity. It’s a group that greatly enriches the educational experience by virtue of all the different backgrounds they bring to our campus – the quality of their educational backgrounds and the variety of schools and disciplines that they have pursued – so I’ve described it as a national faculty.”


The entertainment industry will often paint private schools as an academia for the rich. The stereotype depicts plaid skirts, neck ties and expensive cars. But the truth is there are nonpublic school options in Arkansas that are accessible to all income levels. Thaden, for example, implements a unique “Indexed Tuition” program that brings the cost of its tuition within reach for a broad range of families. Each family’s contribution toward the cost of tuition is determined or “indexed” based on its financial resources.   


St. Theresa Catholic School in Little Rock also actively supports economic diversity and inclusion. The school’s principal, Kristy Dunn, shares that from her perspective, some of her students who enter the school with some disadvantages (including socioeconomic status, language and learning disabilities) are given an advantage by having such a close relationship with their teacher and other school staff. “They feel safe, loved, and supported,” she says.   


Several years ago, the school implemented a MMI grant to provide free breakfast for students. Since then, it has transitioned to the National School Breakfast Program through USDA. Every student has access to a free breakfast daily. According to Dunn, 70% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch and breakfast. “We were experiencing more morning reports from teachers that kids had a stomachache in the morning. It was clear we needed to offer breakfast,” she explains.


St. Theresa’s push to support disadvantaged families dates back several years. Initially, the school’s after-school program cost $10 a day, which was out of the price range for most of the families. An MMI grant was requested to allow kids to attend for only $1 per day. Since then, the program has grown and evolved. It now includes a partnership with its neighbor, the Dee Brown Library, from which all kids receive an afternoon meal. “Wow! Some of our students receive three meals a day here,” Dunn notes.


This August, St. Theresa was also awarded an ESSER grant, which functions as a program within the after-school program to provide tutoring and entrepreneurial lessons to a targeted group of junior high students. “These wrap-around services provide great support to our school families, and though rare for private schools, are vital to our mission and the community we serve,” she adds.



Seeking Faith-Based Education


Many Arkansas families also seem to be looking for schools that can integrate more than the core subjects of math, reading and science. As Subiaco Academy Assistant Head for Academics and Communication Cheryl L. Goetz says, “Families who choose Subiaco Academy are most interested in our commitment to whole-person development.” The head of the college-preparatory school notes that Subiaco Academy, indeed, emphasizes scholarship but what it most highly values is “character development and the opportunity for a young man to grow in faith.”


“Our unique parallel curriculum with its focus on strengths-based learning, social-emotional maturity and integrity-based leadership is exceedingly attractive to parents who are looking for more than the fundamentals of education,” Goetz adds. “Families are seeking an education that teaches their sons to become responsible, moral leaders; Subiaco Academy is rooted in the nearly 1,500-year educational tradition of the Benedictine Order, which does just that. A Catholic, Benedictine education is student-centered and dedicated to raising young men to become the faith-filled leaders of not only their local communities, but also communities around the world.  The opportunity for students to develop their whole persons — their souls, their minds, and their bodies; to receive an education that is countercultural — is the greatest advantage I see in attending a private school like Subiaco Academy.”


Character development and spiritual guidance appear to be top-of-mind for many families across the country, but perhaps even more so in Bible Belt States like Arkansas. Ricky Massengale, superintendent at Union Christian Academy, says that from his perspective, it seems that families are looking for a healthy culture when they consider a private- or public-school education. “This doesn’t mean that every private school is healthy and every public school unhealthy; that’s not it at all, because I don’t believe that is true,” he explains. “But when families are looking at their school options and considering a variety of factors (extracurricular offerings, academics, student body demographics, financial obligations, etc.), the central theme seems to come back to the culture of a school: What is the school really like, what are the teachers like, how do students behave, what is the academic program like, etc.?”


Massengale explains that his belief is that the culture of a school is shaped by its worldview. This means that the advantage of being a private Christian school is that they can be very clear and unapologetic about their worldview. “Every education has an agenda and worldview behind it,” he adds. “We’re just very clear as to what ours is: We proudly proclaim Christ in the classroom. From our mission to our faculty and staff, to our academic offerings, to our desired student outcomes, and even to how we discipline–these are all shaped by our Christian worldview.”


This clearly defined doctrine has attracted a large number of new families to join Union Christian Academy. Over the past five years, enrollment went up more than 60%. According to Massengale, parents have appreciated the school’s strong hybrid-educational model and COVID-mitigation plan during the pandemic, which allowed for kids to miss less education. Parents have also been drawn toward the smaller class sizes and better student-teacher ratio that allows for more attention to be apaid to each student.


Steve Straessle, the head of Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, has seen a similar thirst for education that supports the whole individual, especially when it comes to shaping young men. “Catholic High does not actively seek students running away from something — but running to something,” he emphasizes. “We offer a challenging curriculum and an environment focused on helping parents build their sons into good husbands, good fathers, good leaders.” According to Straessle, the school’s culture of high expectations wrapped in a fun, honest atmosphere appeals to many. “Of course, we emphasize spiritual and emotional growth — in short, character.”


“Lately, parents have become more aware of the so-called “boy crisis” — the phenomenon by which boys seem to be falling behind their female peers in a quantifiable way,” he adds. “There is no boy crisis at Catholic High. We are uniquely situated to teach, encourage, and inspire young men. I believe that’s the primary reason parents choose our school.


For many, faith-based schools represent a return to ethical values that are important to them and that they hope to impart to their children. Theresa Hall, the superintendent for Catholic schools in Little Rock, shared that in her perspective, “parents want a safe environment with strong academic programs where their child will be known, respected, and cared for daily. They want to see the partnership between home and the school. In addition, the families who choose a Catholic or other faith-based school are seeking an environment where prayer and faith are at the heart of the school’s mission and culture.” The feedback she has received from parents is that they are seeking an “emphasis on Christian values and moral development” as well as a “family atmosphere where the entire staff knows all the students by name.”


Demands for Smaller Class Size


Of course, one of the most common reasons parents cite for choosing private schools is a smaller parent to teacher ratio. According to St. Theresa Catholic School’s principal, families have come to the school looking for “a smaller environment, with a family feel, and for their child not to be lost in a crowd.” With a little over 200 students from PK-8th grade, Dunn says the staff knows every student and their family.


Shana Nolen, head of The Anthony School in Little Rock, sees similar cases at her school. “We know each student,” she affirms. “We know his or her strengths, weaknesses, interests, capabilities, learning styles, and motivators. …it makes it easy for us to help them love learning and to understand how they learn best.”


At Thaden School, where diversity is one of the key principles, Marsh attests that this “diversity of the school community is essential to the quality of the education because you have different perspectives at the table, different backgrounds. Learning is stronger, more dynamic; its discussions are richer and more complete in important ways.” He adds, “And, when you have small class sizes, as we do (our class sections average no more than 15 students); when you put great teachers in small sections with lots of different perspectives, that’s the recipe in our view for an education of the highest quality.”


According to Niche, these are the top 10 nonpublic schools in the state. Niche conducts its rankings by combining comprehensive public data with its own surveys. Statistics are pulled from the Department of Education, Common Core Data, Civil Rights Data, School Attendance Boundary Surveys and Niche’s own Student and Parent Surveys.   


Top 10 Private K-12 schools in Arkansas

1. Pulaski Academy

2. The Episcopal Collegiate School

3. Little Rock Christian Academy

4. Gospel Light Christian School

5. Union Christian Academy

6. Shiloh Christian School

7. Central Arkansas Christian Schools

8. The Baptist Preparatory School

9. Providence Classical Christian Academy

10. Fayetteville Christian School


Top Private High Schools in Arkansas

1. Thaden School

2. Pulaski Academy

3. Subiaco Academy

4. The Episcopal Collegiate School

5. Little Rock Christian Academy

6. Gospel Light Christian School

7. Union Christian Academy

8. Shiloh Christian School

9. Central Arkansas Christian School

10. The Baptist Preparatory School