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Progress and Challenges: A ‘Force of Nature’ Drives Lebanon’s Ledyard Charter School

  • Lynne Grigelevich, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, speaks during a morning meeting on Dec. 19, 2013. The meeting, which involves students sharing and discussing different topics, helps fulfill the social-emotional component of the school’s curriculum. “When they learn about each other they become more compassionate toward each other,”  Grigelevich said. From left: Ethan Kelly, Dakota Sawyer, Lynne Grigelevich, Anthony Riendeau, and Tonya DeCamp. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Lynne Grigelevich, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, speaks during a morning meeting on Dec. 19, 2013. The meeting, which involves students sharing and discussing different topics, helps fulfill the social-emotional component of the school’s curriculum. “When they learn about each other they become more compassionate toward each other,” Grigelevich said. From left: Ethan Kelly, Dakota Sawyer, Lynne Grigelevich, Anthony Riendeau, and Tonya DeCamp. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Executive Director Lynne Grigelevich, right, listens as Seamus Ritz, 16, of Newport, N.H., practices bass guitar in the music room at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)<br/>

    Executive Director Lynne Grigelevich, right, listens as Seamus Ritz, 16, of Newport, N.H., practices bass guitar in the music room at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
    Purchase photo reprints »

  •  Lynne Grigelevich, center, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, talks to Gavin Ribeiro, 15, front right, of Lebanon, N.H., at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Lynne Grigelevich, center, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, talks to Gavin Ribeiro, 15, front right, of Lebanon, N.H., at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A decorated paper plate made by students hangs on the wall in  Executive Director Lynne Grigelevich's office at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. Students call her "Mrs. G" or "G-Force" fondly. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    A decorated paper plate made by students hangs on the wall in Executive Director Lynne Grigelevich's office at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. Students call her "Mrs. G" or "G-Force" fondly. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  •  Lynne Grigelevich, left,  executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, confers with her assistant, Jessika Fisher, of Grantham, N.H., while working at the school in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Lynne Grigelevich, left, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, confers with her assistant, Jessika Fisher, of Grantham, N.H., while working at the school in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  •  Lynne Grigelevich, center right, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, hugs student Katie Dixon, 17, of Lebanon, N.H., after first-period classes at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. Dixon is one of a few students who leave to take classes at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center after morning classes at Ledyard. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)<br/>

    Lynne Grigelevich, center right, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, hugs student Katie Dixon, 17, of Lebanon, N.H., after first-period classes at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. Dixon is one of a few students who leave to take classes at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center after morning classes at Ledyard. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lynne Grigelevich, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, speaks during a morning meeting on Dec. 19, 2013. The meeting, which involves students sharing and discussing different topics, helps fulfill the social-emotional component of the school’s curriculum. “When they learn about each other they become more compassionate toward each other,”  Grigelevich said. From left: Ethan Kelly, Dakota Sawyer, Lynne Grigelevich, Anthony Riendeau, and Tonya DeCamp. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Executive Director Lynne Grigelevich, right, listens as Seamus Ritz, 16, of Newport, N.H., practices bass guitar in the music room at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)<br/>
  •  Lynne Grigelevich, center, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, talks to Gavin Ribeiro, 15, front right, of Lebanon, N.H., at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • A decorated paper plate made by students hangs on the wall in  Executive Director Lynne Grigelevich's office at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. Students call her "Mrs. G" or "G-Force" fondly. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  •  Lynne Grigelevich, left,  executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, confers with her assistant, Jessika Fisher, of Grantham, N.H., while working at the school in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  •  Lynne Grigelevich, center right, executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, hugs student Katie Dixon, 17, of Lebanon, N.H., after first-period classes at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 19, 2013. Dixon is one of a few students who leave to take classes at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center after morning classes at Ledyard. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)<br/>

Lebanon — On a June day in 2011, Lynne Grigelevich was driving her Toyota Corolla near Richmond, Va., with three cats, two weeks’ worth of clothes and a general destination in mind when her cell phone rang.

By the time the 43-year-old educator had completed a conversation and pulled back into northbound traffic on Interstate 95, her life had changed.

The call had been from Mike Van Dolah, then a board member of the Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, who offered Grigelevich a job as executive director of the 3-year-old institution. The salary wasn’t particularly substantial, the school’s finances were shaky and if Grigelevich accepted the post, she would be the third person to hold it in as many years. Nonetheless, she couldn’t restrain her excitement and accepted on the spot.

“I told (Van Dolah) ‘Great, I’m halfway there,’ and he was a little surprised,” Grigelevich recalled with a laugh. “I was jumping for joy in my Corolla. The cats were taken aback, but I was psyched. I felt everything I’d learned had come together to put me in a spot to help at-risk teens.”

More than two years later, Grigelevich remains fired up, but she’s also realistic about the gains made and the challenges faced by her school and herself.

Ledyard’s enrollment has grown to 48 this school year, up from 30 students two years ago, and Grigelevich said the institution has no outstanding debts, an accomplishment two years in the making. Although the school is still widely viewed as a last resort for troubled students and potential dropouts, its reputation is improving as students and parents proselytize about their positive experience.

On the down side, Ledyard continues to survive primarily on funding by the state of New Hampshire, which annually contributes $5,450 per charter student. The statewide average for per-pupil spending in public high schools is a little more than $12,000, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education. That gap sometimes leaves Grigelevich without basics like paper clips and toilet paper. She estimates she spends “several hundred dollars per month” from her own pocket, not only for school supplies but also to help students if they need lunch money or a new pair of shoes.

At Ledyard’s second-year digs on the second floor of the former School Street elementary school, Grigelevich answers the phone, takes attendance, hands out Band-Aids, mentors her three teachers, counsels and disciplines students, oversees the school’s finances and meets regularly with the nine-person board of trustees. Twelve-hour work days are common.

“As far as the school goes, Lynne is it,” said board member Mike Harris, a past Lebanon schools superintendent who now holds the same position in Lyme. “She’s a larger-than-life force of nature, but we’re going to burn her out because she’s in too much of a scramble. In order to reduce the emotional and personal demands on her … we have to raise a substantial amount of funds.”

For now, Ledyard’s success relies on the former acting student and waitress who got her teaching start in a classroom reminiscent of the movie Blackboard Jungle and who has twice uprooted her life and moved thousands of miles without concrete plans.

“I’ve never made decisions out of fear,’’ said Grigelevich, who had decided to relocate to New Hampshire in 2011 because of respiratory trouble, six months before Ledyard offered her a job. “I knew I would be happy and healthy in New Hampshire and if I had to scoop ice cream at a store in Littleton, so be it.”

New England Native

Raised in North Attleboro, Mass., near the Rhode Island border, Grigelevich is the eldest of three children from a devout Catholic family . Although she strayed from the church at 18, Grigelevich remains close with her parents, both of whom are accountants, and her two younger brothers, one of whom is gay and a Boston-area aesthetician. The other is a diesel mechanic in upstate New York.

Grigelevich worked as a pizza cook while in high school. “I was a very good student and a (teacher’s pet),” Grigelevich recalled with a chuckle. “Even though I didn’t go back to church, I do believe it gave me a foundation and a moral barometer. My family was my anchor and its anchor was Catholicism. Whenever you have an anchor, you’re better off and a lot of my (Ledyard) kids don’t have that.”

Grigelevich was a theater major at C.W. Post University on Long Island for a year and a half before she took a February vacation trip to Bradenton, Fla., with a friend and impulsively decided to settle in the Sunshine State. She still loved acting, but had decided she didn’t want the lifestyle that can come with it, so she returned to New York to pack her belongings and dropped out of school.

Roughly three years of beach living and waiting tables later, she enrolled at a community college. Five years after that, she graduated from the University of South Florida with an English degree, credentialed to teach school and made wiser and more resilient by lugging surf-and-turf platters and schlepping drinks. Waiting for her November debut were 134 English class students at Tomlin Middle School in Plant City, Fla., a region of about 35,000 people 25 miles west of Tampa.

Grigelevich said the class she inherited had chewed through 20 substitutes since the original teacher quit three months earlier. Three of her students were in seventh grade for the third consecutive year, three others had given birth and about 25 percent were involved in gangs, she said. Half the school’s population were minorities and some students refused to participate in class. Half of them were failing the math class held next door to Grigelevich’s room.

“You focus on the ones who are there with you and the others, if they’re not being mean, OK,” Grigelevich said. “But they’d never had anyone like me, who was crazy enough to ask about what was going on at home and who got down on the floor and who took the class outside for lessons.”

Grigelevich moved to Tampa’s northern suburbs for her second year of teaching, remaining at the middle school level and being honored as the state’s best new language arts teacher by a state educators’ association. By 2007, she had moved up to chair the English Department at an expensive private school called Academy at the Lakes. Her enthusiasm, connection with students and voracious appetite for refining her own skills made her a big hit, and her unconventional approach kept her pupils engaged.

“I wouldn’t go in the first day and say let’s learn about verbs,’’ Grigelevich said. “That’s bull----. My whole first week wasn’t about academics. It was about community and team building, because you’re going to spend the next year with these people.

“We would talk about having reverence for each other. That means you acknowledge someone’s right to think and feel the way they do and that it’s as important as your same right. You don’t take away from anyone else’s learning.”

As time progressed, Grigelevich became more involved in school administration as well as overseeing a host of student electives and clubs. She was mentored by Academy at the Lakes’ Director Robert Sullivan and began to believe she could help children on a more widespread basis.

“I’m watching some teachers thriving and some who are not and I’m figuring out why,” Grigelevich said. “I thought if I could use all my bags of tricks and training together, I could affect the culture of a whole school.”

Although she enjoyed her job, Grigelevich was drawing a salary of just $33,000 after 12 years of teaching and her health was poor. Routinely plagued by allergies and asthma, she suffered through 18 months of serious respiratory problems, including pneumonia, and decided to move to New Hampshire, which had first captivated her at age 12 on a family vacation to Franconia’s Echo Lake. When her attempt to sell her house sank in the mire of Florida’s saturated real estate market, she declared bankruptcy and walked away from her mortgage.

Grigelevich had also found an online job posting for the Ledyard director’s job. Her phone interview went well, but the board told her the school couldn’t afford to fly her up for an in-person meeting. So Grigelevich paid for the trip herself, interviewing not only with the board, but also with a dozen students and parents while sitting in a circle. She was offered the job despite possessing neither a master’s degree nor a principal’s certification.

“I couldn’t let a house hold me to Florida when my happiness and health were at stake,’’ said Grigelevich, who now makes an annual salary of $65,000. “I spent four days here and I knew this was the job that was supposed to be mine. I haven’t taken a single bit of allergy or asthma medicine since I got here.”

Importance of Fundraising

Ledyard Charter School received its state approval to open in 2007 and conducted its first classes in February 2009. Jim Nourse, Lebanon High’s principal from 2004 to 2007, had worked with several others, including Harris, to establish what Harris called “a dropout prevention program.” Initially housed in the former Sacred Heart School building and including about 20 students, Ledyard was partially propelled into existence when the New Hampshire Legislature raised the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 in 2008.

Finances were a concern from the start, because funding was almost nonexistent other than state per-pupil money. Ledyard has never received any per-pupil funding from the Lebanon, Mascoma or Hanover school districts from which it draws its students. In contrast, the North Country Charter Academy, which opened in 2004 and serves the Lancaster-Littleton region, receives $5,000 per pupil from the towns from which it accepts students. Total local and state grants amount to more than $9,000 per student, although North Country doesn’t receive the full per-pupil state grant.

Grigelevich said her school has an annual budget of $277,000 but also an annual shortfall of $25,000, which must be overcome through fundraising. It is the only one of New Hampshire’s 17 charter schools to subsist overwhelmingly on state funding. She has begged and scraped for additional money and said she raised nearly $20,000 herself last school year. Each member of the school’s board is charged with raising $1,000 for the current fiscal year.

Grigelevich said her fundraising covered expenses such as computer technology and the cost of enrolling several students in a Lebanon College licensed nursing assistant’s program and internship. Ledyard’s learning program is Internet-based, partially to save money on textbooks and partially because Grigelevich views that path as more applicable to the modern world.

She said $9,000 donated to the school by Etna’s Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation for the current school year is being spent to augment Ledyard’s stable of 16 desktop and laptop computers, as well as 24 Chromebook laptops that are less expensive and run online applications.

“The board has been very supportive, but they haven’t had to invest tremendous time and energy,” said Grigelevich, who pressed its members to help establish consistent, annual funding during a retreat earlier this year. “How do we ensure the financial stability of the school? We can’t keep hanging on by our fingernails.”

Grigelevich’s hope is that she can one day invest the vast majority of her time in administration and hands-on interaction with Ledyard’s teachers and pupils. She believes she’s turned the school’s focus in a learning-based direction during the last couple of years, replacing what she felt was previously more of a “therapeutic setting” that allowed for lax behavior.

Before she arrived, the school “had become known as a place where you didn’t have to do anything and you would still graduate,” she said. “It was kind of like a commune, like ‘Hey, man, it’s all going to be good,’ and Lebanon saw us, and I believe still sees us, as a dumping ground for kids with behavior issues or not enough credits to graduate.

“When I took this job, I knew it would take time to turn that image around. I don’t want to be known as the school of last resort. I want to be known as the alternative path.”

Said Harris: “More and more, Lynne is winding up with kids who are pretty capable academically, but who really need personalized attention in an alternative setting.”

Lebanon resident Tandy Tang, whose 16-year old son, Kyler, attended the school for about six months last year, was wary when Lebanon High officials suggested her boy might be better off at Ledyard. She and her son had heard rumors that the school’s students were losers and burnouts and Kyler was so adamant about not attending that he told his mother she would need police backup to make him go there.

After meeting with Grigelevich, however, Kyler agreed to join Ledyard’s student body. He said he returned to Lebanon High last month for “a variety of reasons”, but that he enjoyed his Ledyard stay. His mother echoed that feeling, describing herself as “extremely happy’’ with her son’s alternative schooling experience.

Grigelevich “remembers what it was like to be a teenager,” said Tang, whose older son is a college student in Utah. Kyler “was finally able to learn in a way he enjoyed instead of somebody handing him a book and telling him to read it and write an essay. The style is more interactive and relevant to him and he was able to build his confidence and excel.

“So much of what is taught in a traditional classroom, the kids can’t imagine ever having to use it.”

Traditional education also didn’t work for Doug McGrath when he attended Mascoma Valley Regional High School before graduating from Ledyard in 2013. The 19-year-old now works at Poverty Lane Orchards and teaches a music class at Ledyard twice a week, giving students a chance to learn how to play the drums, bass and guitar. He recalled that for him, just the act of being hugged by Grigelevich brightened his outlook on life.

“They’ll teach you every subject you’re supposed to learn and they make them relate to life purposes,” McGrath said. “The way (Grigelevich) presents the school and how it can work for you, it gives you a warm feeling.

“I didn’t dread coming to school every day, and it had gotten to that point at Mascoma. I was in a troubled place and the reason I’m still alive is because of her and this school.”

‘Salt and Vinegar’

Grigelevich was being interviewed in the school’s main meeting room one morning earlier this school year when a large, lanky teenage boy entered through a door to an adjoining classroom space, his mood a mixture of sulkiness, defiance and irritation. He slouched in a folding chair at a nearby table and described a verbal confrontation with a female classmate.

“What happened, baby?” Grigelevich asked calmly, extending a snack bag toward him. “I thought you guys were buddies at the beginning of the year? You want some salt and vinegar potato chips? They make everything better.” The two talked for a minute, the student explaining why his classmate was so annoying, with Grigelevich sympathizing and strategizing.

“I would get upset too, and I’m proud of you for sitting here and regaining your composure,” she said. “But how are we going to put a bubble around your head to block her out? Why don’t you take a walk to the end of the cemetery and come back in with a great new attitude about what you can handle, not about what someone else can take from you?”

The student took Grigelevich’s advice and clomped down some nearby stairs to get the suggested fresh air.

“There will be a day where I say, no, I really need you to stay in class, but we’ll work up to that,” she said. “Once they understand that I really care about their thoughts, feelings and needs, then I can draw a harder line.”

Another Ledyard student, 15-year-old Gavin Ribeiro, said he and virtually all of his classmates were bullied or ostracized at their former schools. The former Lebanon High student said Grigelevich fosters an air of empathy among the students and staff, insisting that they contemplate how their actions and words will make others feel.

“She helps us understand that everyone has problems but that we still have to be able to interact,” Ribeiro said. “She’s like a mom, but she has the same energy we do and that makes it fun to be around her and to learn.”

Brandon Dailey graduated from Ledyard in 2012 but is often still at the school as Grigelevich’s volunteer assistant. Although rough around the edges and resembling a diminutive lumberjack, Dailey has a deep appreciation for his mentor’s ability to cut through kids’ troubled emotions and give them something stable on which to cling. He tracks down tardy or wayward students, sits in on class discussions and generally acts as a respected conduit for Grigelevich’s philosophy of tolerance, cooperation and achievement.

“You are your own person here, but if you slack off or cause trouble, you’re not going to be here long,” said Dailey, who attended Ledyard prior to Grigelevich’s arrival. “Before she came, there wasn’t as much structure and things were kind of wild. If you felt the need to do the work, you did, and if you didn’t, you didn’t.”

Dailey said when significant problems arise, Ledyard students and staff now crowd into the meeting room to air grievances and construct solutions.

“One little thing can cause big problems, but in a normal high school, no one really notices that,” he said. “Here, if the family isn’t acting right, we hash it out right away.”

Simple Life

Grigelevich lives simply in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Lebanon, not far from Colburn Park. She notes with a chuckle that she doesn’t own a piece of jewelry worth more than $10, but that she doesn’t want for anything material or emotional and that she never wakes up wishing something had gone differently in her life.

“I’d like to weigh 30 or 40 pounds less, but that’s my own fault,” she said.

Never married, Grigelevich takes a few short vacations each year, often to kayak and explore the White Mountains, but is mainly consumed by and enthralled with her profession.

“I didn’t ever have children because I’m a mother to so many (school) kids and they take up all my heart and life and passion,” Grigelevich said. “I have the best family and friends and every single day I get a glimpse of having had an impact on a kid, whether it’s an email from someone I taught years ago or a Facebook message from someone who goes to Ledyard now.

“This is like a dream for me, to be able to help create a school where kids grow and give back to their community.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.