Editor’s note: Our cover story on Pine Ridge School [“Hard Lessons,” July 16] continues to provoke reaction from former students, parents, staff and others associated with the campus and Headmaster Dana Blackhurst.
Since the story was published, the discussion has largely taken place in our Letters section. For various reasons, the school’s leaders, whose reaction to the story was both quick and critical, have hesitated to be part of that conversation.
Last week, the Pine Ridge School Board of Trustees asked to write a formal response to “Hard Lessons.” Seven Days agreed.
The Pine Ridge School Board of Trustees appreciates this unprecedented opportunity given to us by Seven Days to respond to the recent article about Pine Ridge School and the Headmaster, Dana Blackhurst. Our goal is to provide a more complete picture of the school by sharing additional facts, many of which are being made public for the first time.
Pine Ridge School, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was founded in 1968 to meet the needs of students ages 13 to 18 of average to above-average intelligence who have learning differences — namely, dyslexia; specific language-based learning disabilities; and non-verbal learning disabilities. The school recognizes that this student population possesses unique strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. Every member of the current Pine Ridge faculty fully supports its mission to provide “an educational community that is committed to empowering students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences to define and achieve success throughout their lives.” No current member of the Pine Ridge community is more committed to helping children who fit this description — kids who, due to learning differences, have difficulty reading and often require alternative teaching methods — than Dana Blackhurst, the current Headmaster of Pine Ridge.
In 2006, when the Board of Trustees determined that a change was needed at Pine Ridge, they engaged a professional firm to conduct a nationwide search for a new Headmaster. After spending four months conducting an exhaustive search, a committee consisting of faculty, board members and a parent representative unanimously selected Dana out of 17 qualified candidates for the job. Dana was chosen because of his dedication to this population of children with learning differences; his own educational experiences due to his personal struggle with dyslexia; his professionalism; and his outstanding leadership skills.
Dana is a nationally recognized educator and authority in the field of dyslexia. An educator since 1983, Dana has received numerous teaching honors, including the Educator Award — Carolina branch of the International Dyslexia Association (2002); South Carolina Middle School Teacher of the Year (1990-91); and a congressional proclamation as “Outstanding Educator” in South Carolina.” He has long been associated with the International Dyslexia Association and has served on its Board of Directors. Most recently, he held leadership positions with several prominent schools for children with learning disabilities. He was executive director for Innovative Learning at the Carroll School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where he also taught Social Studies. From 1991-2005, Blackhurst served as Head of Camperdown Academy in Greenville, South Carolina.
Given these qualifications, the Board of Trustees considered Dana the candidate most qualified and capable of leading the school through what everyone expected to be a difficult period of transition.
By 2006, Pine Ridge found itself in a very difficult and complicated position. Over the years, the school had drifted far from its original mission. It had accepted children with learning, and social, emotional and behavioral profiles. This decision required a therapeutic approach, rather than an academic/remedial approach that had been fundamental to the accomplishment of Pine Ridge’s mission. Providing services to children of so many different profiles, and satisfying the desires of their families, required a much larger staff and drained more resources than was sustainable. By straying so far from its original mission, Pine Ridge found itself unable to meet the needs of the children it had worked so hard to serve. The board realized there was a need for a change in leadership.
When the board announced that a new headmaster would be sought, a power struggle over the future direction of the school ensued. One group of parents, faculty and staff wanted Pine Ridge to continue in its mission drift by providing a more therapeutic environment. Another group of parents, faculty and staff wanted Pine Ridge to return to its original mission. The latter group, of which the board was part, sought an environment with high standards and expectations of excellence, to give the children opportunities to learn to manage and overcome their learning disabilities. Dana was chosen to refocus the school, make its operations more sustainable and be a model of accomplishment and success for the kids.
Everyone expected this “mid-course” correction to be very difficult and painful. We were profoundly disappointed that some in the community chose not to assist in this transition, but to fight it through personal attacks and daily disruption to campus life. This was not in keeping with the mission or the spirit of the school. Despite the extreme challenges of the transition, the board has remained firm in its support of Dana, who has continued to demonstrate his professionalism.
We are delighted that the changes made at Pine Ridge have begun to spawn success. Over this last academic year, many success stories have emerged. Pine Ridge students made record gains in their reading and mathematical levels because of the new programming elements that Dana put in place. Reading levels increased by an average of 2.6 years and math scores improved by an average of 4 years. In addition, many students were given the opportunity to gain self-confidence by participating in activities in which they excel, such as a new school band and an expanded studio arts program.
We in the Pine Ridge Community are excited about the future. 2008-09 is a rebuilding year that is designed around a reduced student enrollment and a faculty and staff prepared to re-invigorate the school and revitalize its core curriculum. This summer the entire faculty received intensive training in the Orton-Gillingham approach, which is considered the “best practice” for teaching children with language-processing challenges. The approach focuses on the needs of the individual learner, and instruction is language-based, multi-sensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive and dynamic. The Orton-Gillingham approach will be integrated throughout all major aspects of Pine Ridge life — academic, remedial, residential/ social and athletic/recreational — to address all aspects of the students’ education and growth. In addition, essential skills for lifelong success — including organization, time-management and self-advocacy — will be taught across all settings.
The students returning to Pine Ridge this fall will benefit from highly structured, safe and success-oriented academic classes, and a reorganized residential life. They will enjoy a variety of new and expanded programs, including studio arts, music, technology, physical fitness and culturally themed semesters. Each student will receive a laptop which they will use daily in their coursework. The school has created a Vermont Scholarship Program to partner with the community and help local children attend our school affordably.
We at Pine Ridge School invite the community to share in our present and future excitement and enthusiasm, and to support our efforts to be the best liberal arts-based secondary school for students challenged with language-based learning differences in the country. By joining forces, the Board of Trustees, our parents, faculty/staff, alumni, Dana Blackhurst and our community will work together to ensure the continued success of Pine Ridge School.
Pine Ridge School Board of Trustees: Mitch Roman, Kim Alsop, David Brewer, Bill Frank, Allyson Krings, Robyn Michell, Denise Rezzi Restauri
If you have any questions about Pine Ridge’s educational program, contact John Thomas, admissions director, at (802) 434-2161 or visit our website http://www.pineridgeschool.com.