‘A heavy lift’
Retired Neighborhood Schoolhouse teacher Dot MacDonald is now a trustee of the school where she taught for 27 years.

‘A heavy lift’

Neighborhood Schoolhouse will continue under a new board and administration after a surge of interest from its community to save the 40-year-old alternative school in Brattleboro. The reprieve came 10 days after the school abruptly announced that it would close.

BRATTLEBORO — The Neighborhood Schoolhouse, which had announced its permanent closure, will continue operations under the management of a new board of trustees and school administration.

Ten short days after the school abruptly closed, its board issued an announcement on Feb. 15, crediting the decision to “the outpouring of support from the community on behalf of the school and its mission in response to our decision to close.”

One day before, “members of the community presented a written proposal to keep the school open,” the announcement said. “We have reviewed this proposal and are prepared to transfer board leadership and school administration to this group.”

On Feb. 5, the independent school on Solar Hill, off Western Avenue, had announced its closure effective Feb. 18, giving families less than two weeks to find alternative schooling or child care.

But now, during this week's regularly scheduled winter recess, Neighborhood Schoolhouse will be visited and inspected by a variety of people every day in anticipation of reopening as previously expected on Monday, Feb. 28.

The new board of trustees - Norma Willingham, Dot MacDonald, Gabe Pofcher, Rebecca Michaud, Brenda Siegel, Sarah Croitoru, and Meg York - is also meeting with teachers and parents this week.

Teachers have extended their contracts to June, and four of the five teachers have already committed to continuing in the next academic year.

The new board, which took the reins without a full briefing on the previous board's rationale for closing the school, has pledged to at least try to keep Neighborhood Schoolhouse open through the end of the year.

“There is much we need to learn about the current situation,” said MacDonald, who retired from the school four years ago after 27 years of teaching.

“We don't know if we can create a miracle, but we're certainly going to give it a shot,” she said.

“NSH is an incredible resource for the community and there are lots of kids who have economic struggles in their families and other challenges who find a home at NSH,” said Siegel, one of the organizers of the efforts to reverse the board's decision.

“It has so many unique features that include the outdoors,” she said. “It would be a true loss to the community if the school closed.

Neighborhood Schoolhouse was established in 1980 on the campus of Solar Hill, a large mansion on Western Avenue that used to be the home of former Vermont Governor Ernest W. Gibson Jr. The property became the campus of the Mark Hopkins College for Independent Study, which was established in 1965.

The school - which took shape in the former dormitories behind the mansion after Mark Hopkins joined with Windham College and moved to Putney in 1978 - offers child care from infants to toddlers, as well as a nursery program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The 10.1-acre property was purchased by Robert Johnson Jr. in 1980. Johnson and his then-wife, Elaine, joined a small group of interested parents in hands-on efforts to turn the dormitory into a school. The property has been owned by a holding company, Delta Epsilon LLC, since 2003.

The setting - insulated by woods that back up to Harris Hill - also inspired teachers to provide as much education outdoors as it did inside.

Parents were devastated, shocked, and surprised by the sudden closure with only a few days' notice to find places for their children at other schools and child care centers - and then the problem was solved as quickly as a couple of kids arguing during recess.

What happened?

'Coming together to problem-solve'

While a miraculous story of people coming together to save a school happened within 10 days, it didn't start out with sunshine and rainbows. And the jury is out on whether and the extent to which it can still actually be saved.

Any of these efforts also required the strength and conviction of alumni, parents, teachers, and staff past and present who have retained a sense of community long after their involvement with the tiny school.

That was the case for Siegel, whose son, Ajna, now 20, attended Neighborhood Schoolhouse as a child.

When Siegel, who had previously served on the board for six years, heard that Neighborhood Schoolhouse was closing, she posted an announcement on social media for a community meeting to support the school.

“This meeting is specifically about and for folks who would like to save our magical school,” she wrote. “If you are part of the NSH community now or in the past and you want to save our school, we welcome you.”

“I knew I wanted to run a positive meeting where we didn't blame those currently in charge,” Siegel told The Commons. “If you look through the history of Neighborhood Schoolhouse, that playground, the nature, the location, it's a very special school. Coming together to problem solve has always been a part of its culture.”

Within a day, she posted a link to a Save the Neighborhood Schoolhouse Community Meeting on Zoom.

“When I put out my message, I was immediately overwhelmed with support,” Siegel said. “The community clearly showed within minutes that there was broad support for the school.”

That support extended into the Zoom meeting. The 30 to 40 people attending included school founders, former teachers, administrators, parents, and students now grown, some with families of their own, in addition to current parents.

Some of the details of the school's challenges did emerge during the meeting.

Before Covid, enrollment at Neighborhood Schoolhouse had been at full capacity. Despite the pandemic, the board managed to keep the school open, but the number of students declined, and the elementary program was ultimately suspended. By one estimate, the school population stands at 16 preschoolers and five middle school students.

As student population declined, parts of the building still needed to be reconfigured to keep students safe during the pandemic. Installing air purifiers required more unanticipated spending as enrollment declined.

Quickly, the group divided into groups of those who were willing to become involved with building and grounds, fundraising, policy and procedure, and many other aspects of educational and nonprofit management.

“It was amazing,” Siegel said, “how often do you find a group with such a huge community memory for a school? They brought all their talents.”

By the following day, the group had created a written plan of potential help and actions to support the current board of Neighborhood Schoolhouse and held a meeting - a task made more difficult by the fact that no one knew exactly what problems compelled the trustees to announce its closure.

Undaunted, Siegel presented the group's ideas for moving ahead, offering a range of solutions for any number of areas that might have weakened the school.

“I was able to say to the current board, 'There is a group of people willing to do this,'” she said.

That offer of new leadership for the school came framed in positivity, Siegel said.

“When people have been fighting hard to make something work, it's tiring,” she observed. “That board was working so very hard. We recognized this.”

“It's a heavy lift, but we have a strong community,” she added, noting that those attending the organizational meeting “understood that if people wanted to see this school open, we needed to come together, not sit back in judgment.”

One day after the meeting, Siegel presented a proposal to the board, whose members took 24 hours to think it over.

Twenty-four hours later, on Feb. 20, the Board announced that all its members - Ariele Ebacher, Abi Healey, Jeni Busby, and James Kirby - would resign their positions and allow a new slate of directors to carry on.

“Everyone on the board feels like the challenges that we were facing are very real,” said Ebacher, a parent at the school, though she, like others speaking to The Commons, would not elaborate on the context of the decision to close the school.

“We were heartened that there are people in the community who want to come together to work to keep the school open at least until June and with hope, long beyond that,” she continued. “It's a very special place.”

A new board takes the reins

Meg York, Norma Willingham, Dot MacDonald, and former student Gabe Pofcher immediately signed on as the new board of trustees. On Feb. 21, the board added Rebecca Michaud, Brenda Siegel, and Sarah Croitoru to its roster.

MacDonald is particularly excited to have Pofcher at the table.

“A long time ago, he was my student in Kindergarten, and here he is now, a recent graduate of Hampshire College, back to help us out,” she said, smiling.

“When I first heard NSH was going to close, I was very sad because it's such a wonderful and unique model of education,” said Willingham, who served as principal from 1986 to 1997. “I had invested 11 years of my heart and soul in the school, and I sincerely wanted to help.”

“A whole lot of people attended that meeting who were also sad and curious, as we weren't sure why it was closing. One of the things we wanted to do was say, “We're here. We want to help. We will be on the board, we will be on a fundraising committee, we will problem-solve around problems with the building,” she said.

“We wanted to send out support and hold the closing off, at least until the end of the school year,” Willingham added.

“When I heard the news that NSH was closing, it was panic time. I was so depressed about it. I wanted to help,” MacDonald said. “If it wasn't for Covid this probably wouldn't have happened. It was a mess.”

A place worth saving

Morgan Ingalls, who now works for the U.S. National Park Service at Acadia National Park in Maine as a biological technician researching bats, has fond memories of her time at Neighborhood Schoolhouse.

Ingalls attended the school from preschool through to her eighth-grade graduation in 2002. During those years, its population varied between 50 and 75 students.

“So much of who I am today and what I do today is because of Neighborhood Schoolhouse,” she told The Commons.

Ingalls was recently interviewed for a nonprofit that supports the park and was asked how she got her start in sciences.

“I mentioned that I went to this elementary school that was alternative and one of the things that we learned was how to build shelters in the woods and it instilled this love of nature and science in me from a young age,” she said.

Ingalls felt supported by the entire community of teachers, the parents, and the student community.

“I think that part was what I really loved and needed as a child. It was a small and great community where everyone knew who I was and was very supportive of everything I wanted to learn about,” she observed.

“Mine was quite a different experience from a run of the mill elementary school,” Ingalls said. “It was a very special place to me and so many others.”

York, one of the new trustees, has had two children in the Neighborhood Schoolhouse program.

“Parents were very upset about this sudden announcement,” York said, “We were angered by the lack of transparency and the abruptness of the closure which didn't correlate with how long this had apparently been planned by the Board.”

Emphasizing how important the school is to the children attending, York drafted a letter that she circulated to parents and guardians making a request of the Board to at least keep the school open until the end of the school year in June.

“We didn't choose NSH because it was a place for our children's child care and education, it was because NSH offers something incredible - community, nature, enrichment. Neighborhood is a second family to our children,” she wrote. “That is a part of the school's 40-year plus history.”

She continued, “Many of these children were born in this pandemic or were young when it happened. They have led very protected and sheltered lives. Neighborhood was their second home, and the parent community didn't want to pull that away from our children.”

Turning ideals into reality

This week, Siegel said that she hopes people understand that the handoff from the old board of trustees to the new board “definitely is a positive transition, and it was positive on both sides - no hard feelings.”

“The last board worked very hard, and they did something really brave in trusting us,” she added.

Willingham takes note of a few sentences that are still on the Neighborhood Schoolhouse website describing the school's history:

“It has been said that practicality is nothing but an ideal put to use. That's the story of Neighborhood Schoolhouse. We began in the spring of 1980 as a small group of people who shared some simple but strong ideals. Since that first gathering, we have taken steps - along with the help of good fortune - to turn these ideals into a reality that continues to grow.”

“I think of what is happening now as being in that same tradition, said Willingham. “We're doing the same thing - the same thing that people have done all along.”

“It's not easy running a small independent school, and we worked from our hearts to turn that idea into a reality, into our school,” the former principal said. “It's really telling that so many people came forward to help. This is the NSH tradition of community.”

Ebacher, now a former trustee, agreed.

“The school is still very much held by this community, but during my time on the board, those connections weren't there. Everyone was going it alone.”

“That's the thing about Covid. A lot of the work that goes on at Neighborhood Schoolhouse is about coming together and being together. Since the pandemic, we haven't been able to use this tool that's always been there.”

“It's so refreshing to see this group of people come forward,” she continued. “All the members of the [former] board are so very grateful that the new board is stepping up and they want to take this on. I feel relieved and very hopeful.”

York knows the road ahead will be tough, but she's pleased with the speed and tone of the progress already made.

During the organizational meeting, “It was touching to see how many lives Neighborhood had touched,” she said. “There was no need to fixate on any kind of problems; what we needed to focus on was a solution - we're moving forward in such a positive way.”

“Now the work truly begins,” she said.

MacDonald said the new board members are looking for more people to volunteer, and they are looking for people with some specific skills. Their top needs include people with financial expertise or who are lawyers and policy experts.

Beyond those specifics, NSH is looking to get all hands on deck.

“If there are former parents, students, people that liked what happened at NSH, it would be great to have them contact us to help or support,” she said. “We're very much at the beginning, and we welcome everyone to join us.”

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