GREENFIELD — David Jordan’s phone started to ring almost immediately after Gersh Autism announced it would be closing its school at Crotched Mountain in mid-November.
Jordan, who had been president of the educational and residential facilities there for a decade, first heard from former employees, then from parents of students, and finally, from Gersh itself.
The planned closure of the school, which served students with autism, was announced Oct. 17. But instead of shuttering, operation of the property transferred on Nov. 19 from the New York-based, for-profit Gersh Autism to Seven Hills Foundation, the nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts that Jordan now leads as executive director. Seven Hills describes itself on its website as a “provider of comprehensive supports for people with significant life challenges.”
Had the transfer not taken place, the 35 children and young adults who attended the facility primarily because their home districts couldn’t provide the services they need, would have been left without a school.
It was a monumental task to complete such a complex deal in such a short amount of time — less than two weeks, once the decision was made to do so — but Jordan said the alternative was not something he would stand by to see.
“We determined very quickly it was certainly worth all the effort and pain to get this organization within our control, and most importantly of all, not have children displaced within 30 days. That would have been tragic for the children and their families,” he said.
The successful transition was thanks to many, Jordan said, who were “overwhelmingly supportive” of the effort.
The first group was the Seven Hills staff, who operate in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and eight developing countries, Jordan said. They had to create and register a new entity with the N.H. Secretary of State.
That staff also had to secure two licenses — one from the N.H. Department of Education and another, for the residential programs, from the Department of Health and Human Services. Jordan said it would normally take at least six months to get those licenses, but Seven Hills was fully licensed after less than two weeks, due to what he described as a concerted effort from both departments’ leaders to accelerate the process.
Melissa St. Cyr, chief legal officer for DHHS, called the services provided at Crotched Mountain “vital” for the children and families they serve.
“The continued availability of these services is essential and we are fortunate [that] Seven Hills was willing to come to New Hampshire,” St. Cyr said in an email. “The Department was happy to assist with transitioning these services to a program like Seven Hills Foundation, which has a positive history of providing this type of service to vulnerable youth. We look forward to a continued partnership with Seven Hills.”
Jordan also commended the work of Frank Edelblut, education commissioner in New Hampshire, to make this transition happen smoothly.
“We have heard stories from parents of children who were making gains while enrolled at Legacy by Gersh, and we wanted to continue creating a positive trajectory for these youth on the autism spectrum,” Edelblut said in an email.
Crotched Mountain has a long history, which dates back to 1953.
Jordan, who served as president of the facility from 1985 to 1995, helped to develop many of the amenities it boasts today.
That history is more troubled of late, as the Crotched Mountain Foundation was on the verge of having to close the facility in 2020, until a deal was inked with Gersh Autism to keep the school and residences open. Gersh, though, was plagued with staffing challenges, the company said in an October email to parents announcing the closure plans. State inspectors also found more than a dozen regulatory violations there since February of 2021.
The violations included staff administering incorrect medications, failure to maintain staff-to-resident ratios, and staff who hadn’t been properly fingerprinted or background checked. Earlier this year, a resident walked away from the property, according to a report from the incident, and was found by a police officer who was patrolling nearby public roads. Gersh pointed to staffing issues as the root cause of its regulatory challenges.
So, why would Seven Hills succeed where two others before have stumbled? Because that’s what they do, Jordan said.
Since Jordan’s tenure began 28 years ago, Seven Hills Foundation has grown from a $7 million organization to more than $400 million, with 250 locations and 4,800 employees.
“We try to go into organizations that may be in need of help, and we bring in the expertise that can turn things around,” Jordan said. “We have the capacity. Above anything else, we have a lot of passion about remembering our core mission, to serve the needs of others.”
Jordan said that nearly all of the 35 students Gersh was serving have either stayed or returned after a brief “vacation.”
The new entity will operate as Crotched Mountain School, under the umbrella organization Seven Hills N.H.
Seven Hills Foundation’s plans include the addition of a new Crotched Mountain Village, which will welcome children and young adults with a broader variety of services, such as for those with brain or other physical injuries.
Seven Hills N.H. will seek to increase the number of people the facility serves – there were 125 when Jordan last worked there — which will necessitate a similarly growing staff. There are about 120 employees there now, Jordan said, and the staff will need to grow to 200 over time. Needed workers include nurses, teachers, therapists and direct-support professionals.
Meanwhile, he said, the facility itself needs about $8 million of deferred attention. Capital projects include new roads, HVAC systems and roofs; updated residences and accommodations; and modern information technology systems.
Seven Hills Foundation has filed its intent to purchase the real estate, which includes 450,000 square feet of buildings, in January.
“It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be very challenging,” Jordan said. “We’re absolutely committed to making this work.”