Pine Ridge to close in June (3/26/09)

Private school nearly $3 million in debt

March 26, 2009

By Greg Duggan

Observer staff

Barring a “miracle,” when Pine Ridge School closes its doors on June 5, it will mark the end of the institution’s 40-year history. But for headmaster Dana Blackhurst and other staff, that doesn’t mean the school has failed.

    Observer photo by Greg Duggan
Pine Ridge School Headmaster Dana Blackhurst (left) talks with Jean Foss, the school's director of clinical teaching and research, on Friday afternoon.

Blackhurst took over the private school nearly two years ago, charged with returning the institution to its original mission of teenagers with dyslexia and other language based learning disabilities. Since then, enrollment dropped from more than 70 students last year — many of them with behavioral problems that didn’t fall under the school’s mission statement — to 22 this year. Staff also dropped to about 20, including 16 layoffs in January 2008.

As the school reinvented itself, remaining faculty and students drew close. Blackhurst and other staffers moved into the dorms, and teens interviewed by the Observer spoke highly of the bond between students and staff while also praising the school’s one-on-one approach to academics.

“Academically, that side, we are very healthy as a school,” Blackhurst said.

But the school, which had been in debt since before Blackhurst took over, still struggled to pay the bills. Business manager Ron Turner and the Board of Trustee’s finance chairwoman, Kim Alsop, pegged the school’s debt at about $3 million. Turner said the school is losing less money this year than in any of the previous five years — when losses ranged from $250,000 to $800,000, he said. He would not speculate what the annual deficit will be in June.

Officials largely blamed the economy for the decision to close. Mitch Roman, the chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees and a former student in the 1970s, said public schools that would normally send students to Pine Ridge for language learning needs were cutting back on spending. Boarding students pay an annual tuition of more than $56,000. Alsop said the poor economy had made it more challenging for the school to raise money through donations.

Declining enrollment also meant a decrease in tuition income. Furthermore, Roman said that when Pine Ridge relaxed its admission standards and moved away from its mission statement — an effort to boost tuition revenue — it lost its reputation as a school for students with language based learning disabilities.

“Since we strayed from our mission, consultants didn’t know what our niche was. They weren’t sending us students,” Roman said.

Admissions Director John Thomas said all current students expressed a desire to return to Pine Ridge next year — and called that a reflection of the school’s academic success — but the loss of six graduating seniors would have dropped enrollment to 16. Turner said the school would need an additional 15 students to make the finances viable.

“We probably could have gotten by at 25 or so (students),” Roman said. “If we’d had 35, I’d be very happy.”

Said Alsop, “At the end of the day you want to do what’s right for the students there. We couldn’t see that happening next year.”

Finishing the school year

The students who remain, who watched Pine Ridge undergo its academic transformation in the past two years, are disappointed to see the school close.

“I’m trying to keep positive,” said 16-year-old Kelsey Jacobsmeyer, a student from California. “I will miss this school. It’s helped me so much and raised me to the level where I can go to college.”

She liked the changes implemented by Blackhurst to install more order and discipline — students used to regularly swear, storm out of class and cause other problems in the classroom — and her self-confidence grew this year as she became a better student.

“I believe when I leave here I’m going to be someone,” Jacobs-meyer said.

She plans to attend another private school next year, and hopes Blackhurst can be there as well.

Stephen Haigley, a 15-year-old student from Baltimore, said the school helped him grow academically and gave him an opportunity to make good friends.

Now, with the school ready to shut its doors, Blackhurst, staff and the six trustees have taken on an additional purpose — beyond continuing to educate, they need to find placements for the students who would have returned next year.

“The finest thing I do in 22 years of teaching will be placing these kids,” Blackhurst said.

Turner said making the decision now to close at the end of the school year allows the administration time to help students move on to new institutions. Blackhurst said he’s bringing in colleagues from other private schools to meet the Pine Ridge students, who he says will interview those administrators to decide which school to attend next year.

“I’d put these kids up against anybody, any time,” Blackhurst said.

As for faculty and staff — all of whom took pay cuts in an effort to help the school — Blackhurst believes the Pine Ridge teachers would make wonderful additions to any school. Two staffers are considering starting a learning center in the area.

“It’s important our teachers and students go out knowing we did the right thing,” Blackhurst said.

Alsop said the board is considering its options on how to climb out of debt, though she did not elaborate. Turner and Roman mentioned a sale of the school as one possibility, and Roman said there has been some discussion of allowing another school to rent the facility.

“A miracle could still happen,” Blackhurst said. “Twenty-two kids could enroll tomorrow.”