Her dream school

Last modified: Sunday, January 22, 2012
The math teacher laid out an equation. Start with a student who lacks stimulation; plus, the family lives nearby; plus, smaller classes are a priority.

For Emily Ricard, each factor increases the chances a student would enroll in her soon-to-open Beech Hill School in Hopkinton. But Ricard knows there's another element at play, one that she can't control. She's asking for trust, for a calculated leap of faith.

"I think, would I send my kids to a new school?" Ricard said last week while standing in an airy and empty science room, a space she hopes will soon be filled with students whose parents say yes.

She answered her own question.

"Yeah, if I did my research. If I met the people who are running it."

In many ways, the 36-year-old Ricard has been doing research to open this middle school for years. When her family bought the former Hopkinton Independent School last year - a building abandoned when the debt-laden school abruptly closed its doors - Ricard put in motion a dream she's been envisioning for nearly a decade as a teacher and educational consultant.

"Anyone who works in consulting with schools has been creating their model perfect school in their mind," she said. "The pressure is to say, 'Now I've got to put it on paper.' But this school (was) being built for years."

 An educational blend

It seemed like a simple solution to Ricard. As a teacher in one of New York City's public schools, she asked administrators to let her split a difficult class of 34 students into two groups of 17 and to teach one in her free period.

"I said it would help me manage better. They said no you can't do that because it's a rule that you can't work more than five periods," Ricard said, remembering her first

assignment as a teaching fellow in 2003.

At the time, she had just moved to education after years of working in finance. Family members warned that the rigidity of the field, and the time spent knee-deep in bureaucracy rather than instruction, would drive her insane.

Instead, it hooked her.

"Unfortunately and fortunately, we're never going to get the recipe for education right. That's why I really like it, because you can constantly change it and tweak it and try something new," Ricard said, the words bubbling out in quick bursts as they often do when she is really, truly excited about a teaching method. "Once you fix a problem, you're not needed anymore and there is nothing more to stay awake at night thinking, 'How can I do this differently?' "

Today, she lies awake at night thinking about Beech Hill, which she said will utilize the best practices from her career in public schools and her upbringing in private schools.

Public education, she said, embraces a diverse student body and faculty, with a focus on professional development. Private education offers smaller class sizes, flexibility in instruction and a balanced approach to testing.

A throwaway from private schools? Tradition.

"We have no tradition yet," Ricard said. "That's one of our visions is to create a model school and keep your mind open that you don't have the right way to do it and there's always something else, like problem solving. How can we fix this?"

She describes Beech Hill as an incubator, with a core philosophy of student-centered education but fluidity in implementing that approach. In large programs like New York City's public schools, she said, that's impossible. But small classes allow the teachers and students to work together in crafting a truly unique environment.

When Beech Hill opens in September, Ricard expects anywhere from 20 to 45 students to be enrolled in either one or two classes in sixth and seventh grade. The following year, the school will add eighth grade, keeping classes between 10 and 19 students.

Question-driven tangents, which can derail a 45-minute class period, should be embraced as opportunities for in-depth learning, Ricard said. So core subjects will be taught every other day for 80 to 90 minutes, with Spanish class daily so students are exposed to the language more frequently.

And homework will be intensive, though not lengthy, with carefully selected questions of increasing difficulty. A typical math worksheet?

"Well, um," Ricard said, displeased. She folded her hands over her plaid scarf.

"I would never be okay with a teacher giving a worksheet for homework," she continued. "Because one thing is teachers print out these worksheets, and all it is, is the same type of problem over and over and over again. . . . If you give kids 20 problems that are all similar and they did them wrong, they've just practiced 20 problems wrong. So now instead of practice makes perfect, practice makes permanent, and you have to redo 20 problems."

When hiring a head of school, the national search attracted more than 40 applicants and ended just 30 miles away, where Rick Johnson is the current dean of student life at the private Tilton School. Johnson, who has been in Tilton for seven years, likes to joke that Beech Hill got a copy of his resume before writing out the job description.

"Students are not going to be passive recipients," Johnson, 38, said last week. "(Beech Hill) will be a culture where students are active in the creation of the community that we are part of."

Running a self-standing middle school, he said, will afford him a unique opportunity to focus on that age group's specific needs.

"They don't have quite the cynicism sometimes of high school students, and they're open to a lot," he said. "The desire to learn and the desire to improve, that's there in high school but it's more raw in the middle school, and I think that really taken care of the right way you can even open it further."

 The rollout

In a corner classroom of the Beech Hill School, stacks of old textbooks are piled amid scattered art supplies and boxes upon boxes of crayons. These are the remnants of the Hopkinton Independent School, a part of the building's past of which Ricard is acutely aware.

"At some point we do want to raise money, especially considering what happened to the last school," Ricard said of Hopkinton Independent, which closed in January 2010 when it couldn't make payroll. "We want there to be some kind of endowment or funds that can help us weather some financial cycles that we're going to go through."

Beech Hill will be nonprofit, an approach Ricard took because she didn't know if the community would as fully embrace a for-profit institution considering Hopkinton Independent's fate. Also, the nonprofit status will help the school raise money to cover scholarships, technology and other expenses. For the first few years, Ricard will rely on her background in finance, managing the money so Johnson can focus on the students.

The school is leasing the building, set on three acres of hilly Hopkinton countryside, from Ricard's family's company, which purchased it at auction last year for $410,000. The money to renovate the space - about $40,000 - will be paid back to the company over 10 years.

Last week, construction workers shuffled through the school's ice-caked parking lot, carrying supplies to finish a four-month renovation that will wrap up in the next few weeks. In upgrading the space, Ricard has moved a few walls, redone the septic system and added more electrical outlets, enough work to leave a thin layer of white dust over the space but not deplete her budget.

The building has good bones, she said, and an extensive renovation to add eye-catching features or excessive technology just wasn't necessary or financially responsible at this point. First, she wants teachers to get into the classroom and see what students need.

As she contains costs, there's one area where she's willing to stretch her spending.

"My budget on marketing, I'm not sticking to," she said. "We're just trying to tell the story as frequently as we can."

About a dozen parents and community members have shown up at each of the school's three information sessions. Ricard is taking applications now, but plans on pushing back deadlines so she has more time to meet with parents.

Once the renovations are complete, getting prospective students into the space will offer a big opportunity to sell the program, Ricard said.

"Maybe I should be nervous," she said.

But as she checks off tasks scrawled on an oversized whiteboard in her office, she exudes a quiet confidence. Things, she said, are going smoothly.

"I don't think my nervousness has ever gone over 20 percent of my energy on this because it's just been so rewarding and exciting and fun," she said. "And I guess I hope that that energy will translate into the students being excited."

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or tnadolny@cmonitor.com.)