By DOUG LAROCQUE
NEW LEBANON–It was brought out at the January New Lebanon Town Board meeting that the Darrow School was in financial trouble and may well close at the end of this academic year. There was a stunned silence in the room, as the iconic private school near the Massachusetts border has been part of the town for 92 years. It was announced at that meeting there was a concerted effort underway to raise $5 million in a very short time so the school could operate for the 2024-25 school year.
Fast forward to the end of January and the school has announced the news is much brighter. The fundraising effort was a success, thanks to the work of the alumni, parents and faculty and the New Lebanon community. Head of School Andrew “Andy” Vadnais is ecstatic they won’t be hanging out the closed sign, after $5.7 million was collected in such a short time, but he tells The Columbia Paper it’s just one bump in the road to preserving the school for the long term. Their challenge now is to revamp their business model to ensure the doors stay open for more than just one more year.
That revamp will have several components. One, of course, is reducing expenses. He said the 16 historic Shaker buildings on site are a very important part of the campus, not only because of the history they depict about the Shaker society, but also because they are an important part of the academic culture and an integral part of New Lebanon’s legacy. They however frequently present unanticipated costs, noting the foundation on the 1834 tavern started to crumble last year and repairs ran around $300,000. Their viability is just one of the considerations the Board of Trustees will have to consider.
With an annual budget of $6 million plus, relying on tuition entirely is not an option, particularly with an enrollment of just 100 students. Mr. Vadnais said, “We have to change our culture and become much more competitive in attracting new enrollees.” He describes the competition among the nation’s private schools as “cutthroat.” He made it clear that Darrow needs to make itself more viable and attractive. “It’s not as simple as just running a series of advertisements,” said Mr. Vadnais. “We need to explore many more avenues.” The Head of School bemoaned the school’s lack of identity, noting a recent informal survey of residents in nearby Pittsfield, MA, showed that many had never even heard of the school. Mr. Vadnais says “that has to change.” He is asking the school’s alumni – who include such people as Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr., Apollo 12 commander and just the third person to walk on the moon; Christopher Lloyd, movie and television actor; as well as Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, noted sports commentator – to talk up their school.
Sports is another road Mr. Vadnais wants to go down. He would like to build up Darrow’s sports program and make it competitive on a national prep school level. Mr. Vadnais says it gets the word out, sort of like, it’s cool to go to Darrow. He cites some of the success the Hoosac School in Hoosick has had in attracting new students because of their high levels of sports competition. Mr. Vadnais indicates that effort is underway, with the recent stepping up in class of their basketball program.
Mr. Vadnais said they have a few international students currently enrolled at the school, but it is imperative they find ways to attract more. “It’s important we increase our worldwide recruitment efforts.” Mr. Vadnais adds, it’s a resource not only for the school financially, but also enhances their students’ cultural experience.
This is another avenue where sports can come into play. Young adolescents from other countries often seek to play at a higher level than is available back home and look to schools in the United States to fulfill that desire. Schools like Darrow, Mr. Vadnais hopes.
There are many reasons parents choose to send their offspring to private schools. Mr. Vadnais points out that education is still the prime driver in their consideration. Darrow, like many such non-public schools, prides itself on its learning environment. With an average teacher to student ratio of 4 to 1, its noted and learned faculty with the ability to offer instruction in ways schools with much larger teacher to student ratios just cannot duplicate, and just the family atmosphere itself, all come into play. Mr. Vadnais said Darrow’s students are just like any other young adults, they love to socialize with other students on and off campus, party (the school makes sure it is in a responsible way), play games, and, when not in class, have their cellphones constantly in hand. Mr. Vadnais points out education is still primary, but it’s also about helping these children build a good understanding of life.
Mr. Vadnais said he is frequently asked why don’t you apply for state or federal grants? The reason is that funding available for public school systems just does not exist for private schools. When it does, Mr. Vadnais said, “It comes with many strings attached.” Strings he feels sometimes compromise the educational standard Darrow prides itself on.
While Darrow does depend on tuition for a significant part of its revenue chain, Mr. Vadnais points out that anyone can apply. The school does have a financial aid program for those that qualify. Currently, 45% of the school’s student population is part of this program.
The administration and faculty and the New Lebanon community were all concerned about the potential closing, but it wore heavily on the minds of Darrow’s students. One such student is Z Assi. He tells The Columbia Paper, “as a junior at Darrow, I believe Darrow is an extremely important place. Your teenage years are some of the most vulnerable and malleable moments in your life, and actually having a structure and community in place to help you grow and flourish is deeply important. Darrow is that for many, many children.
“As someone who will now be able to spend all four of my high school years at Darrow, I am brimming, no, overflowing with thanks for the people who spent hours raising the millions of dollars needed to keep Darrow alive. Thank you.” (Z spoke with his parent’s knowledge and permission, and has also written a column for The Columbia Paper.)
The school on the mountainside, as Darrow often refers to itself as, is frequently hidden from view as you travel U.S. Route 20 east toward the state line. Often, the only way you would even know the school is even there, is to see its sign. The next time you pass by, Mr. Vadnais invites you to turn down Darrow Road and see for yourself what Darrow is all about.
For more information about Darrow, go to email@example.com or call 517-704-2760.