Beech Hill preps for its first day

Last modified: Monday, August 13, 2012

The Beech Hill School in Hopkinton is set to open just after Labor Day, and administrators say about a dozen families have decided to invest in the new venture.

The number of enrollees is shy of the 20 to 45 students founder Emily Ricard said she was aiming for earlier this year, but enrollment is rolling and administrators expect to take new applicants into the fall.

''There are those growing pains that any new school has in finding its way,'' Head of School Rick Johnson said last week as he broke from a meeting with his four faculty members. ''I really think that to have a dozen, hopefully it gets to 15, maybe 20, is really a good number. . . . What's most important now is those families that are with us have the best experience possible. Because they've put their faith in us.''

The students are split between sixth and seventh grade, and in 2013 administrators plan to add an eighth-grade class. At capacity, the school would have 90 students, two classes of 15 for each of the middle school's grades.

Small class sizes are central to Ricard's vision. She wants Beech Hill to draw from both the benefits of public education, with a focus on things like diversity and professional development, and private education, with flexibility in instruction.

Her family's company bought the building at 20 Beech Hill Road at auction for $410,000 last year.

And while Ricard said it typically takes about two to three years for a new school to open, she's doing it in about a year due in part to a line of credit she secured. That has meant focusing more time on education and less on funding.

The school is a nonprofit, an avenue Ricard took keeping in mind the fate of the Hopkinton Independent School, which operated in the building until January 2010 when it couldn't make payroll. The nonprofit status will allow Beech Hill to set up an endowment for scholarships, technology and other expenses.

Johnson, formerly the dean of student life at The Tilton School, said financial aid is a priority for Beech Hill, and next year about a third of the students will receive some kind of scholarship for the $11,800 tuition. He said the student population comes mostly from Concord and Hopkinton.

''The one thing they've had in common is the experience they've had at this point hasn't been what they're looking for for their children,'' he said. ''So they're looking for something different.''

And Beech Hill's curriculum will look unlike the one found at most public schools.

The four faculty members will focus on core subjects. But other classes, such as electives and gym, will be taught in part by outside instructors, which Johnson said will give the school the ability to offer a diverse education with a small staff.

He sees the school partnering with the community, with a local yoga instructor running gym for a few weeks or an area woodworker teaching an elective in the trade.

Johnson will teach a skills class focusing on things like time management, organization and conflict resolution.

''If all of a sudden three teachers come to me and say I asked them to create an outline last night and no one knew what I meant, okay, that's a great thing for skills class,'' he said. ''Instead of taking out of science class to teach outlining we can take our skills class to teach that and then they can use that skill within science.''

Once a week the entire school will also come together for a solutions class where they will tackle one world issue such as hunger, population or democracy each trimester.

Johnson, Ricard and their teachers will be fine-tuning those classes over the coming weeks, the final steps in the long and exhaustive process of opening a new school.

In the last few months, the pair has done everything from budgeting to hiring staff. They've painstakingly decided not only what chairs to buy but what size and color they should be. They've done marketing and ran recyclables to the dump. And when state regulators came for a site visit, Johnson came in to vacuum.

''Sometimes you can get caught up in the minutia where you say, 'Does it matter?' '' Johnson said. ''But when you care about something it matters. Because all of the details do matter.''

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