While we have not yet started to make a big deal of it (yet – just wait ), we are fast approaching the 10th anniversary of the first day of school in our building on Zena Road. Between now and June 14th, I will be writing some blogs that will provide some history of the school. In this first installment, I will discuss the school’s enrollment. This particular topic is in the forefront in my mind because we are starting to face one those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that we have the highest enrollment since the very beginning of the school. The bad news is that is looks like we will have to start thinking seriously about how we handle a waiting list.
For those who don’t know some of the details of the early years, I will provide a bit of history before I get to the topic of enrollment. My wife Lisa and I started to talk about starting a Sudbury school in late summer of 2001. Once we decided that we were going to make it happen, we started talking to our friends about the idea. Most of them, while wishing us well, did not want to get involved in the project. Three other couples, however, did like the idea of the school and joined us in the effort to build it. We had weekly meetings at our house and eventually went public with the idea. There was a nice article written in the Woodstock Times along with a full page advertisement. This generated enough interest that our first information meeting at the Woodstock Town Hall was standing room only. Clearly there was dissatisfaction with the existing educational options! Once everyone understood what we were attempting to build, most of the people in attendance decided that this was not the type of education for them. Some, however, loved the idea and joined our founding group.
During the initial founding period, Lisa noticed that there was a large parcel of land for sale on Zena Road. The location was perfect for a school – easily accessible and in a beautiful setting. At the time, property values in Woodstock were still depressed so we were able to purchase the land for a very reasonable amount. We now had the location for the school. There was only one problem – we would need a significant amount of time to build the school building and we felt that it was important to keep the momentum going and start the school as soon as possible. So we started to look for place that we could rent for a couple years while the building was designed, approved by the town planning board and then built.
We settled on a commercial property on Basin Road (just the other side of Route 28 from the current school location). We contracted with the owner and in the late summer of 2002, we had a place to open the school.
As mentioned earlier, there appeared to be a huge pent up demand for some type of alternate education in the Woodstock area. We were inundated with phone calls and emails asking about the school. Most of these were very positive, but it was clear that there was limited understanding about how the school would actually operate. Try as we might to paint the picture, it is really impossible to communicate what a Sudbury school looks like to someone who has never experienced a democratically operated school with no set curriculum and where the students are free to associate with whom they choose. This pent up demand resulted in us opening the first year at Basin Road with a total enrollment of 62 students. Within a week, we had 67 students. Unfortunately, shortly after we opened, we were informed by the local building inspector that the building that we were renting did not meet the criteria necessary for a school. We made the very painful decision to close the school and focus our energy on getting the Zena Road building built.
The process of building the Zena Road building took approximately 18 months. As anyone who has ever attempted to build a 5,000 sq. ft. building that meets the construction requirements for a school on a rocky, forested lot in a town with a reputation for making it difficult to do new construction knows, this was amazingly quick. As we got near the end of the construction the remaining founding group had a decision to make. It looked like we would get the Certificate of Occupancy in mid-June. Should we start the school for the last week or two of the school year or wait until the fall? We decided that we would open the school – even if it was only for two weeks – so that the parents and students who had stuck with us through the process would have something. So, on June 14th, 2004 I picked up the Certificate of Occupancy from the town building department and we opened the doors.
When we opened on June 14th, 2004 we started with around 25 students. What happened to the other 42 who used to be enrolled? Most of them had found other places to go to school in the time that we closed and were satisfied enough with those places that they did not want to come back to HVSS. More significantly, however, we had a much better idea of how to describe the school and the community had a much better idea of what we meant when we said, “no curriculum”. Whereas before, people didn’t really believe that we really meant no curriculum, they now knew that we were serious about it.
In the beginning of the school’s history at Zena Road, it became clear to the staff that there were two types of students who enrolled at the school. There was the group of students and parents who really understood (or understood enough) about the school to make an informed decision that this was the type of school that they wanted. There was also the group of students who were simply escaping their previous school or educational environment. For this group of students, it was not about “coming to” HVSS, it was about “not going to” someplace else. These “escapee” students would almost never continue to stay enrolled. They were “one and done” students. This resulted in a huge year-to-year turnover. A typical school year would start with 35 students and end with 45 to 50 students. The “one and done” students would not re-enroll and the next year we would be back to around 35 students.
In an attempt to limit the number of “one and done” students, the staff worked to develop ways to communicate how the school operated. This effort started to pay off roughly 3 to 4 years ago. At this point the year-to-year retention rate, started to change from roughly 75% to greater than 90%. This increase in retention rate then started to have an impact on the school’s enrollment. A couple days ago, Shelley told me that we had reached an enrollment of 62 students. As of this writing, she also has 6 enrollment interviews scheduled. It appears as if, 10 years after we re-started the school at 84 Zena Road, we are close to matching the enrollment that we had in the heady first days on Basin Road.
There is a huge difference, however, between now and then. Now, we have students and parents who “get” the school and who understand that it is about freedom with responsibility instead of freedom from responsibility. Now, we have two staff members with 10 years of experience, one with 6 years of experience, one with almost 3 years, and two new staff members who have fit seamlessly into the school and who are already making huge contributions to the school. Then, we had 6 staff members who were trying to figure out how to create a culture they had never experienced. Now, we have a group of parents who are dedicated and devoted to helping the school through fundraising and through building a community among the parents.
Ten years ago, when we opened the doors, I don’t think any of us could have predicted what would happen. If asked, then, whether we thought we would still be in existence ten year later, I don’t know what the answer would have been. Looking 10 years into the future, I see some enormous challenges ahead. I take personal comfort, however, that at the start of this next 10 year period we have a great group of students, staff and parents. I know that working together we will be able to successfully face any challenges that we encounter along the way.
 We define year-to-year retention rate as the number of students who re-enroll in September divided by the number of students able to re-enroll. Students who move out of the area or who graduate are not counted.