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Sign outside Runnels School, seen Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, decribes the preschool through high school classes there. The private school in Baton Rouge is facing the possibility of having to close its high school, if it canÕt persuade enough current high school students to accept a significant tuition increase by Jan. 31, and raise enough through a special fund drive. Runnels announced the tuition hike late last month along with the importance of renewing early, saying it needed the increase to combat an a slow, steady enrollment decline.

After a big tuition increase and a last-ditch fundraising campaign, leaders of Runnels School in Baton Rouge announced Friday the high school portion of the private school will close in May when the academic year ends, leaving just a preschool-to-eighth-grade school.

The Runnels School Board of Trustees voted unanimously to shutter the upper grades after too few high school-age students enrolled for the new school year by a Jan. 30 deadline.

"This has been a heartbreaking outcome," said founder Kelly Runnels. "We are dedicated to making the final months of Runnels High School the best possible experience for all involved."

He made clear, aside from the high school, the rest of the school will go on as it has for years.

“Beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, Runnels School will continue as a vibrant preschool through eighth-grade school,” Runnels said.

The high school closure was announced Friday during staff meetings and shared via email during the afternoon as school let out for the day.

In late October, Runnels revamped its tuition schedule to try to keep the high school alive.

Tuition for students in the grades that will continue are little changed, increasing by 3 percent next year, in line with past increases. The high school grades were seeing an increase of tuition and fees of 42.9 percent.

The school also started a special fundraising drive in an effort to cover whatever gap remained, but it wasn’t enough.

“Today, we face issues brought on by a changing landscape in the school environment over the past 10 years,” Kelly Runnels explained in a  November communication with parents. “It has developed due to the growth of charter schools, public magnet schools, and public school growth in surrounding parishes.”

Allison Wrenn, spokeswoman for the school, said Friday was a rough day.

“There were a lot of tears this afternoon,” she said. “It's been very painful for everybody over here.”

The closure of the high school means that freshman, sophomores and juniors will have to change schools next year.

“Our high school administration is working with students and their families to help realign them with new high schools,” Wrenn said.

Kelly Runnels launched the independent school in 1965 in his house, with just three students. It expanded into junior high and high school grades in 1983 when it moved to 17255 S. Harrell's Ferry Road. The Runnels School also maintains a preschool across town at 6455 Jefferson Highway.

Unlike almost all other private schools in Baton Rouge, Runnels School is not affiliated with a church and consequently lacks that added financial support. It is among the elite college prep schools in town — its most recent graduating class had a average ACT score of 26.1 out of 36. The school is also well known locally for its commitment to the arts.

Kelly Runnels, 81, led the school for years along with his wife, Gladys. Retired, he continues as president of its nonprofit corporation and remains active. In fall 2016, he spearheaded the rebuilding of the main campus after it flooded badly, forcing a two-month relocation.

The school’s financial problems, however, preceded the flood. Over the past decade, Runnels School has steadily lost students, decreasing from more than 800 students overall to about 550 currently. The high school portion of the school has decreased to fewer than 200 students.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.