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Hard Lessons 

Headmaster Dana Blackhurst is trying to save Pine Ridge School, but will he destroy it first?

click to enlarge Dana Blackhurst
  • Dana Blackhurst

Martha Sacco describes her son, Woody, as highly intelligent and curious, with no history of behavioral or disciplinary problems. But, like his parents, he's dyslexic, a disability in which the brain has difficulty processing written language.

Woody struggled in his public school, an experience his mother describes as "a nightmare." By the time he reached seventh grade, school officials had told Woody's parents they couldn't do anything more for him. In response, the Saccos transferred Woody to Pine Ridge School, a small, private academy for children with learning disabilities.

When Martha Sacco talks about Pine Ridge, which is nestled in the wooded hills of south Williston, she echoes countless other parents who have sent their children to the school since it was founded in 1968: "Without sounding too melodramatic," says Sacco, who lives in Hinesburg, "Pine Ridge saved my son."

Removed from the rigid and stressful environment of public school, Woody thrived at Pine Ridge. His classwork improved dramatically, and he developed close relationships with other students and his teachers. Woody and his parents had planned for him to graduate in May 2007. But when his teachers urged him to stay on for another year of independent study, Woody agreed.

But by then, according to Martha Sacco, things had changed significantly at Pine Ridge. She describes Woody's last year at the school as "horrific." The environment on campus had grown "toxic," she says, and "teachers were dropping like flies."

Sacco traces the problems to April 2007, when the school hired a new headmaster, Dana Blackhurst, whose leadership style has alarmed and alienated many parents and Pine Ridge staffers.

In interviews and legal correspondence provided to Seven Days, parents and former Pine Ridge faculty and staff members have described Blackhurst as "impulsive," "insensitive," "inappropriate" and "unprofessional." They say he has a "frightening temper" and accuse him of being "dictatorial." Others accuse the headmaster of being "incompetent," even "illiterate." (Blackhurst, who struggled for years with his own dyslexia - he admits to reading at a fourth-grade level - just completed his high school diploma in March.)

Others, however, say that Blackhurst is just what the school needs. Wendy Canning, who's been at Pine Ridge since 1984 and now works as dean of academics, defended him. "What you see is what you get," she says. "He's as kind and honest as the day is long."

The headmaster also enjoys the support of the current Pine Ridge board of trustees. In an April letter to one disgruntled parent, which the board circulated to all Pine Ridge parents, board chair Mitch Roman wrote: "I assure you that the Board is behind Dana and fully committed to the programs that he is bringing to the campus. In fact, over the past few months we have been hearing from students and parents that [say] they like the changes that have been implemented."

Martha Sacco didn't. Concerned with "an undercurrent of fear" that had permeated the campus, the Saccos removed Woody from Pine Ridge. He eventually earned his diploma by completing an internship and home-study program.

Sacco says she's angry and saddened by the changes the new headmaster wrought. For years, Pine Ridge parents and faculty had formed a tight-knit, supportive community for learning-disabled students who'd had nowhere else to turn. But, once Blackhurst arrived, she says, that community began to unravel.

"When you have a child who is so misunderstood and you find a place like Pine Ridge where they can belong," she adds, "it takes an awful lot for you to give that up."

******

Among those who are most critical of Dana Blackhurst, Martha Sacco is unique in only one respect: She is the only one who agreed to be identified by name. The others interviewed by Seven Days did so only on the condition that they remain anonymous. Their reason: Fears that Blackhurst would retaliate against them and/or their children. Several reported that their kids are headed to college soon and were concerned that Pine Ridge would not forward their high-school transcripts. Others expressed fear that Blackhurst would sue them.

Certainly, he has the means. By his own admission, Blackhurst is a wealthy man. His wife is Jan Jones, a former two-term mayor of Las Vegas who now serves as a senior vice president for Harrah's Entertainment, the world's largest operator of casinos. In fact, several people who were involved in the hiring process have suggested that Blackhurst was brought on largely because of his business connections and the perception that he'd bail out the financially beleaguered school.

But Blackhurst's supporters insist he's been unfairly vilified in the community. They say he has become a "convenient lightning rod" for the problems that have plagued Pine Ridge for years, including a sharply diminished enrollment and a $1.4 million debt that, until a local bank intervened, nearly drove the school into insolvency late last year.

"People got mad at Dana because he started laying off people," notes Josh Canning, a remedial language specialist who worked at Pine Ridge from 1995 to 1999 and returned last year. "In fact, he saved this institution. Without him, everybody's out of a job and the students are without a school."

Angela Wilkins, who served on the board of trustees for the last six years until her term ended in March, agrees. She says the school had "really lost its way for a while." Due to financial pressures and excessive staff levels, the school had begun accepting students with "less robust potential" - that is, those with emotional and/or behavioral issues - for whom Pine Ridge was not originally intended.

"You can't be all things to all people," adds Wilkins, who supported Blackhurst's appointment. "I think Dana is doing exactly what needs to be done."

******

Pine Ridge is largely quiet when Seven Days visits the 136-acre campus - the summer session was abruptly canceled this year in order to "reorganize" for the upcoming fall term. Blackhurst, 50, is dressed in a blue polo shirt, beige shorts and sandals.

Blackhurst's office reflects his personal interests, especially his passion for sports. Behind his desk hang two large football banners, for the New England Patriots and the Cleveland Browns. On one wall is an autographed photo of NHL legend Bobby Orr (a current Pine Ridge staffer reports that Blackhurst once played semi-pro hockey). A row of matchbox cars sits on one bookshelf, a box of Fruit Loops on another.

In past years, Pine Ridge served as many as 112 students, including up to 98 residential students, each year. When classes resume in September, however, the school expects just 30 to 35 students, according to Blackhurst. As a result, the staff, which numbered 95 employees last year, has been pared down to 19. The school has also slashed its tuition for day students, from $43,000 to $27,500. (Tuition for residential students is currently $56,000 per year.)

Before coming to Pine Ridge, Blackhurst was executive director of the Center for Innovative Learning at The Carroll School, a private high school in Lincoln, Mass. He also served as headmaster at Camperdown Academy in Greenville, S.C.

Blackhurst says he arrived at Pine Ridge with one goal in mind - to reverse "a decade of institutional drift" that had diverted the school from its mission to educate children of average to above-average intelligence who struggle with dyslexia, language-based and non-verbal learning disabilities.

From the outset, Blackhurst insists that he doesn't want to "talk trash" about his predecessors or engage in the "tit-for-tat" accusations that have distracted the school, costing the institution considerable time and money. Instead, he says, using the first of many sports metaphors he tosses into our two-hour conversation, "We're on the 2-yard line and have 98 yards to go. And we keep falling forward."

Blackhurst doesn't deny that he was an attractive candidate to Pine Ridge due to his ability to address the school's fiscal woes. "I've got a lot of connections," he boasts. However, he considers himself primarily an educator, not an administrator or fundraiser, and believes in "good structure, good organization and a simple three-R approach to learning." He describes his educational style as "Orton-Gillingham through and through," referring to a highly structured, systematic and multisensory approach to teaching developed in the 1930s.

When asked what kind of changes he's made on campus, Blackhurst rolls his eyes. "I don't believe I brought any changes in," he contends. "I asked for one thing: accountability."

That accountability included cracking down on existing policies that had been ignored for years, he says, such as requiring assignment books and lesson plans in the classrooms, enforcing the campus dress code, and assigning homework every night.

"Imagine 80 adolescents under one roof with no study hall. What would you do?" Blackhurst asks. "It's Boarding School 101: You've got to keep the kids busy."

Blackhurst isn't surprised that his stepped-up demands came as a shock to some students and their parents. "I believe that you learn a lot through adversity," he explains. "If you're going to run a marathon, you don't go out the night before and get in shape. You've got to practice."

Some people who've criticized Blackhurst describe his communication style as "all over the place." In fact, he does tend to jump rapidly from one subject to another. According to the headmaster, it's due to that "multisensory" approach to education.

"This is a training barn. Teachers are jockeys, I'm a trainer," he says, switching quickly to another sports metaphor. "We'll get that horse to the Kentucky Derby, but it's their job to run them."

One issue that concerned Blackhurst upon his arrival at Pine Ridge was that several staffers had become too close to their students and were reluctant to enforce school rules. "We had staff members telling students that 'those are Dana's rules, not ours,'" he recalls. "We had 22-year-olds working in the dorms with 18-year-olds. I had staff members who wanted to take kids out to Hooters."

John Thomas, who was hired last summer as director of admissions, is an enthusiastic supporter of Blackhurst's reforms. He, too, claims the school had "lost its focus" when it began accepting students who were "outside our profile." Pine Ridge simply wasn't equipped to handle students with certain psychological issues, he says, and "it's irresponsible for the institution to pretend that we were. For $56,000 a year, you have to answer for that."

One of Blackhurst's first acts was to have Thomas talk to outside consultants and administrators at other schools and find out how Pine Ridge was perceived by the greater educational community.

"To this day," Thomas reports, "you can go to a conference and talk to 15 different consultants and every one of them will give you a slightly different view of what they think Pine Ridge excels at."

Some, he says, assume the school is a therapeutic treatment center, which it's not. Others have suggested it specializes in autism; it never has. Several educational consultants told Thomas that they loved Pine Ridge in the past but stopped referring students there.

"Not only is it a liability issue, but it's an ethical issue," Thomas concludes. "We have a child here. What are we doing for [him]?"

******

One consultant who's had his doubts about Pine Ridge in recent years is Ben Mason, of Mason and Associates in Charlotte. He has been an educational consultant for more than 20 years. His clients are parents, not schools, so he was comfortable offering a blunt assessment of Pine Ridge's strengths and weaknesses.

According to Mason, Pine Ridge has long been known for its "very dedicated and creative staff" who worked well with two diverse populations: those with language-based disabilities, such as dyslexia; and those with non-language-based issues, who can be socially awkward and often lack big-picture comprehension skills.

"There was a level of compassion and engagement at the staff-student level which was very special," Mason says of the school. "But in the long run, it was not going to work financially."

Pine Ridge, he suspects, fell victim to a problem that plagued many private schools of its kind that were founded 30 to 40 years ago: It was too reliant on public dollars to stay in business. In the 1990s, many school districts, particularly those in Vermont, began to address the needs of their learning-disabled students in-house and mainstreamed them back into the public schools. Then, as public money dried up, schools such as Pine Ridge were faced with two options: either increase their marketing efforts to the so-called "private-pay market" - families who could afford to pay the $50,000 annual tuition - or diversify their institutional focus. According to Mason, Pine Ridge did both.

"A private school is like any other business," he says. "You've got to have a product and you've got to have people who buy it."

Once Pine Ridge was "not sufficiently differentiated" from other schools of its ilk, "it got into that awful place where they needed to take kids who were outside of their mission capabilities in order to keep the doors open."

Mason admits he knows little about Dana Blackhurst. But regardless of the changes the headmaster enacts, Mason won't be sending students there anytime soon. "I have a rule that I impose on my people: Let's not put our clients into risky situations," he says. "Let's wait until the smoke has cleared."

******

That may take some time. Blackhurst's effort to sharpen Pine Ridge's mission and reinforce its academic reputation may not entirely explain the visceral negative reaction he evokes from parents and former staffers. Nor can his stated goals for the school explain the angry letters and emails, the threats of legal action, or the MySpace page established for the sole purpose of launching personal attacks on him.

One former administrator, who worked at Pine Ridge for years, suggests Blackhurst has an explosive temper. This staffer described one "temper tantrum," which prompted the adminstrator to resign shortly after he arrived, that included slammed doors and books knocked off of shelves in anger. The administrator and another employee say they felt "physically threatened" by the incident.

In another case, Blackhurst reportedly berated a student in front of prospective parents, then brought those parents into a staff meeting and "completely ripped the staff apart." This staffer characterized the incident as "so awkward, so aggressively handled and so completely inappropriate."

This person also recounted an interview Blackhurst conducted with two other parents, during which Blackhurst allegedly compared their daughter to "an animal in the zoo." According to this staffer's account, the parents immediately left the room, picked up their daughter from her campus tour and never returned.

Another former administrator, who claimed she worked with Blackhurst on a daily basis and initially supported many of his reforms - including the new dress code, lesson plans and staff evaluations - was asked to describe Blackhurst's dealings with students. "They were not positive interactions," she claimed. "I would say that from time to time, he provoked and antagonized students."

Many other former employees and parents were shocked and offended by Blackhurst's reference to "NLD," or non-verbal, learning-disabled students, as "FLKs," or "funny-looking kids." In a February 14 letter to the board of trustees, Patrick Dally, Pine Ridge's former food service director who worked at Pine Ridge for 16 years and served on its senior management team, characterized the incident as "derogatory and abhorrent."

Dally's letter also referred to a disciplinary incident, in which Blackhurst made several students lug cinderblocks back and forth in front of his office window for several hours at a time. According to one former employee who witnessed the incident, one student's hands began to bleed, but he was not sent to the nurse.

As Dally wrote to the board, "Our founders, Howard Delano and Gardner Hopwood, intended our school to have a rich and diverse population who listened, respected each other and who would use language, written or spoken, to resolve problems or issues. Not bricks."

Dally's written request that Blackhurst resign was ignored, and he was subsequently fired himself.

Blackhurst refuses to address every charge made against him by parents and former staffers. He admits to referring to students as "FLKs," but claims the remark was taken "totally out of context" by those who "wanted to see me go." Blackhurst describes himself as creative and "very coach-like."

"A bad temper?" he says. "I don't know about that."

"I've got a chip on my shoulder because I've been blamed for so many things," he continues. "My family has been attacked on MySpace. I got notes under my door that said, 'Leave, bastard!' I'd only been here two weeks. I hadn't even done anything!"

Blackhurst also doesn't agree that he's been too hard on students. "There should be a little whining," he says, "when students are asked to do things they've never done before, like homework and study hall." In the past, he adds, "we did a lot of artificial self-esteem . . . I want Pine Ridge to be the best school in the world. And to be really good, you gotta pay a price."

Some former Pine Ridge parents and faculty members say that price has been too high. As the parent of one former student put it, "We all have a profound sadness and pain that our community has been decimated. That's the common theme for all of us."

Several former Pine Ridge employees didn't respond to requests to be interviewed. They include the former dean of students John Kaufman, who left Pine Ridge to start his own private school for students with learning disabilities in Wakefield, R.I. The school, called Middlebridge, is scheduled to open this fall. It will be staffed by a number of longtime Pine Ridge employees, and attended by some former Pine Ridge students.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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