Beech Hill School in Hopkinton looks toward year two

Last modified: Saturday, July 13, 2013
One month after completing their inaugural year, administrators at Beech Hill School in Hopkinton say they’re pleased with the venture so far and are looking forward to year two, which will include an additional grade level and at least four more students.

The nonprofit independent middle school, which opened in September with grades six and seven, has nine students – five boys and four girls. Four new students have made commitments to the school and others have expressed interest, said Head of School Rick Johnson, adding that enrollment is rolling and will remain open through the fall.

Johnson and founder Emily Ricard, who make up the administrative team, said they would like to see enrollment grow but realize it may take time. At capacity, the school could have 90 students, with two classes of 15 for each grade level.

“We think we should have a waiting list,” Ricard said. “My kids are little. Would I send them here? No doubt. Would I want to teach here? Yes. By both measures, as a parent and an educator, I would want to be here. So how do we get that message out? I think that’s our biggest challenge.”

“It’s not so much a struggle,” said Johnson, formerly the dean of student life at Tilton School, “but more our personal impatience of, this is great, I wish other people knew.”

Ricard, a former teacher, started the school after her family’s company purchased the building at 20 Beech Hill Road at auction for $410,000 in 2011. She chose a nonprofit structure, taking note of the fate of Hopkinton Independent School, which operated in the building until January 2012 when it could no longer make payroll. The status allows administrators to establish an endowment for scholarships, technology and other expenses.

The school is not a charter school, nor does it have a religious or philosophical grounding, which Ricard said allows it flexibility to adapt to students’ needs.

“We’re best practice,” she said. “We’re not going to stick with something, because it’s tradition or it’s our philosophy, if it’s not working. If it’s working well for the students, if they’re having a productive, effective learning experience, then we’re going to go with it.”

Still, Ricard noted that the school hasn’t yet had to stray from its original vision or mission, which emphasizes an intimate, student-centered learning environment.

Classes are organized by block scheduling, meaning students attend a different set of classes on alternate days, with each class lasting longer than it would under a traditional structure. Ricard said she chose the scheduling because it allows students time to delve into a topic or homework assignment, and to develop appropriate time-management skills.

“I didn’t want kids to have to transition through every period every day and then have 10 minutes of homework,” Ricard said. “Because then at night it’s transitioning – 10 minutes of math, 10 minutes of this, 10 minutes of that.”

The move also gives teachers the chance to diverge from a planned discussion should questions arise, and time to develop stronger lesson plans.

The school’s four teachers focus on core subjects, while other classes, such as electives and gym, are taught in part by outside instructors, which helps the school offer a range of classes despite a small staff. Next year, students will have access to new outdoor and LEGO robotics programs.

Students receive traditional performance grades, as well as process grades that track how much effort they’ve put into their studies – the goal being to identify students who are intelligent but lazy, and those who may struggle with a subject but work hard to excel.

Johnson said the overall aim is to prepare students for all types of learning scenarios.

“We’re trying to create a foundation for achievement, so when they leave here they continue to engage in their own learning, to engage with material and teachers,” he said. “We want to help our students understand themselves so they can move forward from here.”

Though Ricard would like to have more students, she said the school’s small size is a cornerstone of her teaching philosophy, particularly as it relates to middle school students, who are at a very fragile stage in their adolescence.

“No matter how small you are, you’re going to go through the trials and tribulations of a typical middle school,” she said. “And because of our size, nothing slips through the cracks. It is dealt with immediately.”

Johnson added that the intimate environment allows students to “put their guard down and be their authentic selves.”

At the same time, Ricard said the staff strongly encourages students to become or stay involved with extracurricular activities, including sports and music, which the school does not currently offer.

Eleven-year-old Alise Lesko, who just completed sixth grade at Beech Hill, said her experience at the school had proved to be an improvement from previous years in public education.

“You get to know other students better and make friends faster and interact with other people better,” she said. “It’s not just a huge amount of people that you just kind of say ‘hi’ to every day.”

Her mother, Stephanie, said her daughter seemed more excited and academically challenged at the school

“It’s honestly been the best money we’ve ever spent,” she said. “Seeing her come home every day smiling . . . it’s not any middle school experience I remember having. You walk into the room while school’s in session and it’s just this constant banter, you hear the teachers talking, the students interacting, everybody’s happy.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)