Difficulties at Pine Ridge shape school

Oct. 9, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

In between classes on a cool, autumn day, Pine Ridge School junior Peter Mergens, talked about the changes the private school went through in the past year. Mergens attends the school, which teaches students with language-learning disabilities, for his dyslexia. He said the differences from the previous school year have been large and, for the most part, helpful.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
Pine Ridge School Headmaster Dana Blackhurst teaches Japanese geography during a world history class last week while student Peter Mergens listens. 

In recent years, Pine Ridge admitted many eighth grade and high school students with behavioral issues, which at times created an environment that Mergens called “out of control.”

But with the school’s officials focusing more on its original mission statement of helping students in language learning, classes have become more organized and conducive to a better learning environment. In his four years at Pine Ridge, Mergens, a day student from Milton, has watched his academic performance and test scores climb. He believes Pine Ridge has a bright future.

“It’s going to take some time once things settle down, but it’ll be a big improvement over what it was,” Mergens said.

Matt Needle, a boarding student from Hartford, Conn., agreed. Needle, a senior leader with the school, came to Pine Ridge last year with reading comprehension difficulties. Even with the “daily” struggles the school faced, Needle increased his reading ability from an eighth-grade to an 11th-grade reading level.

Needle said he found his academic strength at Pine Ridge and is applying to colleges. Like Mergens, he believes Pine Ridge is entering a new and successful period.

“I hope this becomes one of the best learning disabled schools in the country in the next 10 to 15 years,” Needle said.

Starting anew

By all accounts, Williston’s Pine Ridge School went through a period of growing pains in the past year — months of turmoil that included layoffs, faculty dissent and an unflattering article in Seven Days. But headmaster and teacher Dana Blackhurst said the recent struggles were worth it.

“We’re all on the same page now,” Blackhurst said enthusiastically. “We’re way ahead of where we’d thought we’d be at this time last year.”

Blackhurst, who took over the headmaster position in April 2007, immediately set forth bringing change to the 40-year-old school. The school’s recent past is in total contrast to the future Blackhurst envisions.

The admission of students with behavioral problems in recent years was not something Pine Ridge and its staff was designed to handle, he said. As a result, Blackhurst returned Pine Ridge to its core mission: helping students with dyslexia and other language learning difficulties. As a result, this year’s enrollment decreased dramatically.

Last year the school had 83 students. In years past, the number was in the 90s. This year, enrollment is down to 25 students.

Students who board at Pine Ridge still pay a hefty tuition — more than $53,000 a year. Day students can apply for a Vermont Scholarship through the school and receive up to $14,000 toward their tuition bill of more than $40,000.

With fewer students, ballooning debts from fiscal mismanagement in the last several years and a staff to student ratio that proved to be unnecessarily high, the school laid off much of its staff last winter. And with the change of direction, many other teachers opted not to return.

“I thought what I was doing was normal, but some of it was out of their comfort zone,” Blackhurst said.

Faculty and staff numbered more than 90 before the layoffs. Now, only 18 faculty and staff remain. Many took pay cuts, and all went through 60 hours of training for language educators. Seven staff members, including Blackhurst, live in dorms with the students. He said the living situation works for faculty and students, as it opens the door to better communication and extra help with academics.

“We’re here to be part of something bigger than ourselves,” Blackhurst said.

But faculty members don’t seem to mind. In fact, many seem pleased at the changed school environment.

English teacher Linda Comito said last year was “absolutely horrible,” with staff members pitted against one another and forgetting to focus on student learning. Comito admits many teachers weren’t pleased with Blackhurst’s school vision or way of doing things, but something had to change.

“Now the kids can relax and learn,” Comito said. “I’m having a ball teaching. Classes have been heaven.”

Blackhurst said he’s increased the academic rigor for students as a way to prep them for college and other lifelong successes.

“We teach our kids to their potential,” Blackhurst said. “Why should these kids here be treated any different than any other high school kid?”

Other changes include a larger arts program, more integrated with the everyday school curriculum. Students also received a laptop with their tuition.

Another new change at Pine Ridge is the school’s focus on different cultures, specifically focusing on Japan this year. Remedial language specialist Josh Canning is studying in the country on a grant and has created a bond between Pine Ridge and a Japanese school. Students and staff raised a traditional Japanese Torii door on campus at the beginning of the year and the Burlington Taiko traditional drummers kicked off the year in a ceremony on Sept. 5.

Blackhurst admits the school is still “on the edge” in terms of finances, but by returning to its roots and looking ahead, he believes Pine Ridge can have a long and productive future.

“We’re scraping by, no lie about that,” Blackhurst said. “But we’ll take care of ourselves. It’s like survival mode, but we’re all in this together.”