Competition for students among area private schools has just gotten a little tougher.
Hill-Murray School, located on Larpenteur Avenue in Maplewood, announced this November it will be adding sixth grade starting in the 2014-2015 school year. The Catholic-affiliated school has offered grades seventh-12th since the late 1980s.
In a letter sent to students’ families this fall, president Susan Paul explains the addition was something the Hill-Murray board of trustees “wrestled” with for a number of years.
“After much study and conversation, the Board...has unanimously approved a change in our school’s structure and offerings,” she wrote in a letter dated Nov. 23, 2013.
The change allows Hill-Murray to be in closer alignment with most public middle-school configurations and promotes Catholic faith-based learning in the east metro area, Paul said.
In fact, keeping students enrolled in Catholic education is one of Hill-Murray’s aims by adding the additional grade, she noted.
Goal: keep students in Catholic education
Sheri Lunn, Hill-Murray communications and marketing director, said the most important reason for the addition is to keep students enrolled in the Catholic-school network.
“We believe Catholic education is best for children,” Lunn said. “We don’t want them to leave for public schools.”
Students at Hill-Murray generally hail from surrounding cities like Maplewood, Oakdale and St. Paul, Lunn said, with quite a few coming from western Wisconsin as well.
Large class sizes at public schools, sometimes upwards of 30 students, can lead some parents to look for other options, Lunn stated.
“As public schools see an increase in enrollment and they’re overcrowded, parents will look for alternatives. We’re trying to make that easier for them. [Adding the grade] was something we had considered for a long time. We feel really good about this,” she added.
St. Jude is closing its middle school
One of the factors behind Hill-Murray’s decision to offer sixth grade was the announcement this fall that St. Jude of the Lake Catholic School in Mahtomedi would be closing its middle school for the 2014-15 school year due to declining enrollment.
The Rev. Cory Rohlfing recently sent a letter to families explaining the decision. “Effective in the fall 2014 we will discontinue our middle school to focus all of our resources and energy on our highly differentiated K-5 IB program,” he wrote.
Rohlfing continues on to encourage parents to look into Hill-Murray as an alternate junior high option.
“With a complete middle school in place, Hill-Murray will provide St. Jude students with a pathway to continued Catholic education from kindergarten through eighth grade,” he wrote.
Hill-Murray School also scheduled a special informational open house for parents of St. Jude students on Wednesday, Jan. 15, in addition to its regular open house Jan. 13.
St. Peter’s in North St. Paul not concerned
Other private Catholic schools in the area, most of which offer kindergarten through eighth grade, are aware of Hill-Murray’s addition, and say they support it.
St. Peter Catholic School, located at 2620 N. Margaret St. in North St. Paul, is home to just over 230 students between kindergarten and eighth grade.
Principal Alison Frank says although enrollment declined during the recession, numbers are stabilizing and she expects most of St. Peter’s fifth-graders will stay at the school for sixth grade despite Hill-Murray’s addition.
“We’re not expecting a huge shift,” she said. “Right now we have a few families that choose to go to Hill-Murray in seventh grade, but the majority of our students don’t make that choice.”
School officials aren’t sure what kind of enrollment demand they will receive, but Lunn says no matter the number of applicants, Hill-Murray is prepared to accommodate the new class.
“We’ve got room,” she said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out where it’s best to put them.”
The school currently houses a little over 700 students and enrollment is increasing. Students’ lockers are arranged by grade level, and Lunn said the younger sixth-grade students would benefit from being similarly grouped in a “safe, comfortable” space.
Staff is currently working on creating a curriculum for the new grade, as well as making arrangements for new opportunities with athletics, music and theater.
Hill-Murray is also implementing a new tiered middle-school tuition plan starting next year, in which sixth grade costs $6,500, seventh grade will be $8,500 and eighth grade will be $10,500. The cost for grades nine-12 is $12,630.
Lunn explained that the lower tuition is designed to help families “transition” into paying for a Hill-Murray education. “It’s a big drop in tuition to ease people in.”
Principal David Meyer said the extra year at Hill-Murray will help students get ready for the rigorous high school curriculum.
“We’re excited to offer a full middle-school program,” he said. “Adding sixth grade allows us one more year to prepare students for the rigors of our high school program.’’
For more information about Hill-Murray School, visit www.hill-murray.org .
Johanna Holub can be reached at email@example.com  or 651-748-7822. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.