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Struggles of Its Own: Despite Its Successes, Future Uncertain for Ledyard Charter School

  • Lynne Grigelevich is the outgoing executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, she was completing her final reports for the school in Lebanon, N.H., on July 1, 2014. At the School Street School location Valley News - Jennifer Hauckof the

    Lynne Grigelevich is the outgoing executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, she was completing her final reports for the school in Lebanon, N.H., on July 1, 2014. At the School Street School location Valley News - Jennifer Hauckof the Purchase photo reprints »

  • In one of the former class rooms of the Ledyard Charter School at the School Street School in Lebanon, N.H. John Higgins, is the new executive director of the school, Lynne Grigelevich is the outgoing executive director. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    In one of the former class rooms of the Ledyard Charter School at the School Street School in Lebanon, N.H. John Higgins, is the new executive director of the school, Lynne Grigelevich is the outgoing executive director. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Principal Lynne Grigelevich, center right, speaks during the morning meeting at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on December 19, 2013. The morning meeting, which involves students talking and 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 towards each other," said Grigelevich. From left: Ethan Kelly, Dakota Sawyer, Lynne Grigelevich, Anthony Riendeau, and Tonya DeCamp. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Principal Lynne Grigelevich, center right, speaks during the morning meeting at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on December 19, 2013. The morning meeting, which involves students talking and 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 towards each other," said Grigelevich. From left: Ethan Kelly, Dakota Sawyer, Lynne Grigelevich, Anthony Riendeau, and Tonya DeCamp. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eliza Hoffman, of Enfield, N.H., is a 2014 graduate of the Ledyard Charter School.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Eliza Hoffman, of Enfield, N.H., is a 2014 graduate of the Ledyard Charter School. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lynne Grigelevich is the outgoing executive director of the Ledyard Charter School, she was completing her final reports for the school in Lebanon, N.H., on July 1, 2014. At the School Street School location Valley News - Jennifer Hauckof the
  • In one of the former class rooms of the Ledyard Charter School at the School Street School in Lebanon, N.H. John Higgins, is the new executive director of the school, Lynne Grigelevich is the outgoing executive director. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Principal Lynne Grigelevich, center right, speaks during the morning meeting at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., on December 19, 2013. The morning meeting, which involves students talking and 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 towards each other," said Grigelevich. From left: Ethan Kelly, Dakota Sawyer, Lynne Grigelevich, Anthony Riendeau, and Tonya DeCamp. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Eliza Hoffman, of Enfield, N.H., is a 2014 graduate of the Ledyard Charter School.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Lebanon — Ledyard Charter School was established in 2009 to provide an alternative for students who struggled in more conventional high schools. By a number of measures, it has been a success.

Just last month, 17 students moved on to the world beyond high school — some to work; others to higher education — with a Ledyard diploma in hand. Over the past five years, 54 students have graduated from the school and some attribute a decline in dropout rates at Lebanon High School and Mascoma Valley Regional High School to the alternative education Ledyard provides.

In her graduation speech in June, Eliza Hoffman recalled her struggles as a freshman and sophomore at traditional public schools such as Mascoma High. She didn’t do well academically, she said, and had trouble coping with large groups.

“For once, I felt like I could be my complete self,” Hoffman said of her transfer to Ledyard. “I felt proud of the things I achieved, and finally my grades improved. If I had a rough day, going to school was like walking into a building filled with support and people who care for you.”

Despite successes, the charter school now faces a number of challenges, including a change in leadership. Lynne Grigelevich, Ledyard’s executive director who is credited with much of the school’s success, is leaving after three years.

Grigelevich attributed her departure to fatigue, the school’s precarious financial state and interschool politics between Ledyard and the Lebanon School District. While the factors that caused Grigelevich to quit appear to raise questions about the school’s long-term viability, she sees a way forward if educators at Ledyard and nearby schools can better collaborate.

Grigelevich said Ledyard plays a vital role in educating the region’s struggling teenagers, particularly those who reside in Lebanon, where the bulk of the school’s students come from. Due to the role the school plays and the number of challenges its students face — socially, emotionally and academically — Grigelevich said Ledyard deserves greater financial and in-kind community support.

A Different Approach

In order to teach its 35 to 50 students, many of whom have become disenchanted with school, Ledyard works with each to develop a personalized learning plan.

Students and educators work together to set goals. The course work is commonly project-based and linked to real world problem-solving.

Students often participate in community service work, internships and apprenticeships while enrolled at Ledyard.

Roberta Tenney, administrator of the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Office of School Standards, said that in comparison with traditional public schools, charter schools are afforded greater flexibility to explore alternative methods of instruction.

Ledyard is a public school, established in 2007 through a charter approved by the New Hampshire Department of Education. It operates under the purview of the state Board of Education — outside of the local school district — and is governed by a volunteer board of eight Upper Valley residents.

Tenney described charter schools as the “research and development arm of public education.”

According to recent graduates, parents and students, Ledyard’s strengths lie in its staff members’ abilities to craft personalized learning plans to re-engage students in their own learning.

“The way that they taught was very creative,” said Floyd Tétreault, a 2013 Ledyard graduate.

Tétreault said the school’s method of instruction helped students to “understand who you are as a person, what you’re going through in life — what you want to do.”

In particular, Tétreault said, relationships with community groups such as the Carter Community Building Association, CATV and an area horse farm provide students with activities they might not have had access to in more traditional public high schools.

Alex Zuckerman, a 2014 Ledyard graduate, interned with Dartmouth College’s varsity baseball team as preparation for a career in sports management. He credited Grigelevich with making the opportunity possible.

“I wouldn’t have had the Dartmouth internship if it wasn’t for her,” he said.

The perks of Ledyard’s unconventional approach spread beyond the school’s students to those they interacted with outside the school.

Helen Damon-Moore, who just left her position as director of service and educational programs at Dartmouth’s Tucker Foundation to take another at DePaul University in Chicago, said a partnership between the Tucker Foundation and Ledyard benefited both.

Examples of the collaboration include a group of Dartmouth students who played basketball with some of the Ledyard boys and a Dartmouth student who led an after-school girls group.

Ledyard students’ “world experience was a really good match for more privileged students who just had many things handed to them,” said Damon-Moore.

To assist its students in achieving their academic goals during the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Ledyard employed three full-time teachers, one part-time music teacher and a full-time administrative assistant, in addition to Grigelevich. The six salaries and related benefits represent the bulk of the school’s $286,000 budget for the year. Ledyard’s other significant expense was $24,000 in rent for the second floor of the former School Street School building. Expenditures of lesser value included utilities, classroom furniture and materials and field trips.

Ledyard was supported by $5,450 per student from state coffers in fiscal year 2013-2014, totaling $250,700. The school is otherwise reliant on philanthropic support. The Byrne Foundation has and continues to be a significant sponsor, supplying Ledyard with $50,000 to support a school counselor, math teacher and transportation for the coming school year.

The school ended the 2013-2014 fiscal year on June 30 with about $39,000 in carry-over funds after using part of the multi-year Byrne grant to cover program expenses.

Grigelevich has said she spent “several hundred dollars per month” of her own money to purchase school supplies and to buy lunch for students.

“I needed the board to put financial legs under the school,” said Grigelevich. “They just weren’t able to do that.”

She said she asked the board to “really rethink their strategy to bring the money in.”

For example, Grigelevich suggested the Lebanon School District pass on some local tax dollars to Ledyard to support the Lebanon students who choose to go there. Thirty of this past year’s Ledyard students were Lebanon residents, she said.

Grigelevich pointed to other charter schools around the state that receive financial support from area communities. For example, North Country Charter Academy, with locations in Littleton and Lancaster, collected $5,450 per student, or $294,300, almost matching the state grant, from the 10 school districts it served in 2010-2011.

State Rep. Andrew Schmidt, D-Grantham, who sits on the House Education Committee, agrees that having local school districts provide financial support to charter schools makes sense.

“The charter schools are sometimes taking their most difficult students and working with them,” Schmidt said. “If I was a public school superintendent, I would be inclined to throw some money the way of the charter schools.”

He said something like $1,000 per student “wouldn’t be unreasonable.”

Working With City Schools

The Lebanon School District supports Ledyard students who live in Lebanon in the ways it is required to do by law, said the district’s director of special services Helene Anzalone.

For example, the district provides tuition and transportation to vocational schools for Ledyard students who live in Lebanon. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the Lebanon School District incurred more than $51,000 in unbudgeted expenditures for tuition and transportation for Ledyard students, according to business administrator Jim Fenn.

Improved relations between Ledyard and Lebanon might help the charter school in other ways than budgetary relief. Grigelevich characterized the relationship as “one of our greatest obstacles” and pointed to the area of special education as one in which relations have been strained. A more collaborative approach would help Ledyard better serve students’ needs, she said.

Home school districts are responsible for providing those students who qualify with special education services. The law requires services to be provided in the “least restrictive environment” possible.

Because Ledyard is not a part of the school district, Anzalone said, the “least restrictive environment” for Ledyard students who reside in Lebanon is Lebanon High School. When Ledyard students need to travel to the high school for services such as counseling or speech therapy, the school district is responsible for providing transportation.

Ledyard art and English teacher Wendy Tucker said the system of transporting Ledyard students to Lebanon High School for special education services does not work for those “who have extreme needs.”

Tucker said some of the school’s “students really need someone next to them all the time” and Ledyard does not “have the resources to do that on our own.”

Some states allow charter schools to provide special education services in-house, but in New Hampshire “state law hasn’t gotten to that point,” said Anzalone. She said there is room for greater clarity in the law to better inform educators across the state.

“What’s best for kids operating within the laws is not always clear,” she said.

In contrast with Anzalone, N.H. state Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, who sits on the education committee, said that local school districts do have the leeway to define the “least restrictive environment” as “the school where the child is enrolled.”

Schmidt said two schools should be able to coordinate to find an accommodation that will help a particular student.

“Most school administrators and the like want to help students,” said Schmidt. “They do not want to engage in empire building and other things that are destructive to students.”

Beyond the challenges of coordinating special education services for approximately five students last year, Anzalone said there are areas in which communication between the school district and Ledyard might be improved.

Sometimes a Ledyard student will stop attending the school, she said, but the school district won’t hear about it until after the student has been out of school for a week or more. While Ledyard’s legal responsibility to the student ends once he or she leaves, the school district has an obligation to follow up and “figure out where the heck the kid ended up,” said Anzalone.

In general, however, Anzalone expressed support for the role Ledyard plays in the community.

She said she has “seen Lynne and the charter school go above and beyond” to assist students as they struggle with challenges such as mental health issues which may hamper their performance in the classroom.

“I give emotional support to (Ledyard) as much as I can,” she said.

Anzalone said she hoped that moving forward, the school district and Ledyard might improve the lines of communication by having regular meetings so that the two groups might discuss issues such as special education and changes in enrollment status.

New Leadership

To replace Grigelevich, Ledyard’s School Board has hired an executive director, John Higgins, a 12-year veteran special educator from Kearsarge Regional High School in Sutton. Higgins is scheduled to start work on July 7.

Higgins, a Newbury, N.H., resident, said he was drawn to the position at Ledyard by the student population. He said he has a “passion for working with kids that have obstacles.”

In addition to his background in special education, including 20 credits toward a master’s degree in the field, Higgins worked for PepsiCo for five years in New Hampshire — first as general manager in Claremont and then as the director of sales for northern New England in Manchester.

Higgins, whose starting salary will be $60,000, said he anticipates the executive director position at Ledyard will be an “opportunity to apply my business skills.”

He said he hoped to build on the foundation Grigelevich and others have constructed during the school’s first five years and then “see what I can do to move things forward.”

Higgins will oversee the school’s third move since its inception in 2009. Ledyard plans to relocate from its current location in the second floor of the former School Street School building to the Whipple Block on the west side of Colburn Park this summer .

“I look forward to getting in there,” Higgins said.

Ledyard’s board has some changes in store that it hopes will make Higgins’ job a little easier and make the school more viable in the future. Ledyard Charter School Board of Trustees Chairwoman Lauren Morando Rhim predicted the school would seek to fill a new position, a director of student support services.

“We’re hiring a student support position to take some of the burden off the executive director,” said Rhim.

In order to pay for additional staff, Rhim estimated the school would need to raise $100,000 through grants and donations and to maintain enrollment at 45 students to maximize the state’s distribution to Ledyard.

“We plan to pursue every option we can to support the school,” she said.

Grigelevich predicted that if the board is able to place the school on firm financial ground and if Ledyard and the Lebanon School District are able to work together as allies, the “school is going to soar.”

“I would cry tears of joy if next year I saw this huge success story,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

Correction

Because part of a multi-year $50,000 grant was used to cover program expenses, the Ledyard Charter School ended the fiscal year on June 30 with about $39,000 in carry-over funds. An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the school’s financial status. John Higgins, the charter school’s new executive director, worked for PepsiCo for five years in New Hampshire — first as general manager in Claremont and then as the director of sales for northern New England in Manchester. His employment with the company was described inaccurately in the same story.