With a new school year approaching, the Hinsdale School District was preparing to enroll one student in Crotched Mountain School, a facility in Greenfield that provides special education services beyond what public schools can support.
Then, last week, the organization overseeing the school announced it will close by the end of the year.
“And so we’re definitely scrambling in regards to options,” Hinsdale Superintendent Wayne Woolridge said.
The Crotched Mountain Foundation announced last Tuesday that it plans to close its Greenfield campus, which houses the school, in early November. The foundation cited an unsustainable financial situation despite its attempts to cut costs, as well as the continued strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Crotched Mountain School provides special education services to students from kindergarten into early adulthood, as well as an adult residential program for people with disabilities.
The school serves 79 students ages 8 to 21, primarily from New Hampshire, other New England states and New York, according to Crotched Mountain officials. There are 24 residents in the adult program.
The school’s impending closure leaves school districts in the Monadnock Region searching for alternatives for students who need more special education services, and supports for children with behavioral and emotional difficulties, than public schools can provide.
“We don’t have the impact that some of the neighboring towns, and larger towns, will have, but it’s complicated right now, and for one family it’s catastrophic,” Woolridge said of the Hinsdale district.
Crotched Mountain’s shuttering only intensifies the already difficult process of finding placements for students who require outside special education services, said Reuben Duncan, superintendent of the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District.
“Losing a school like Crotched Mountain makes the process that much more challenging, especially since it is such a geographically friendly option for our families,” he said in an email.
Citing privacy concerns, Duncan declined to say how many Jaffrey-Rindge students currently receive services through Crotched Mountain, but said he is confident the district will find new placements for them.
“As with any situation, when the options are reduced, we need to work with our families to find the best situation moving forward,” he said. “This is always a process, and as long as we keep the needs of our learners first, I am confident we will find the right solutions.”
The Monadnock Regional School District has seven students at Crotched Mountain, and is actively seeking new placements for them, Director of Student Services Catherine Woods said. But with increasingly sparse special education placement options in New Hampshire, especially in the southwestern corner of the state, Woods said Monadnock often sends students who require additional services to schools in Vermont and Massachusetts.
“I have been able to watch the number of placements in New Hampshire go down and down and down and down” during more than 30 years as an educator, Woods said. “... Bottom line, with more and more out-of-district placements closing in the state, the options are becoming more and more limited.”
The only other in-state options for New Hampshire students with severe intellectual disabilities are the Easterseals school in Manchester and Monarch School in Rochester, Woods said.
“Obviously that’s just an impossible commute,” she said of the latter.
New Hampshire schools that specifically serve students with autism are also far from the Monadnock Region, Woods added.
“One would be Spaulding Youth Center, and that’s way up in Tilton,” she said. “And that’s just too far away for us. And so we frequently look to our south and look at placements in Massachusetts because there just aren’t programs in New Hampshire that are really accessible to us as day placements.”
Since Crotched Mountain announced its closure last week, several area agencies have said they will step in to help fill the void it will leave. That includes the Concord-based Compass Innovative Behavior Strategies, which has an autism clinic on Main Street in Marlborough that will be able to add more students when Crotched Mountain closes, and hopes to be able to serve more than 60 students. The company also runs Compass Academy in Concord.
With fewer local options available overall, though, Monadnock has focused on bolstering its own internal special education services.
“And some of that comes out of necessity,” Woods said. “As more and more programs close down, then we have to get creative and think about what else can we do. And we have gotten really good at being creative and looking at alternatives and how can we support these children in our public schools.”
The closure of Crotched Mountain is accelerating those discussions about increasing in-district special education services, she added. Similar conversations are occurring now within N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which covers the Keene, Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland school districts, Superintendent Robert Malay said. SAU 29 districts send students to Crotched Mountain, but Malay declined to give a specific number due to privacy concerns.
“It’s something that we’re going to have to work through to see if we have the capacity and the ability to provide some of those supports and services for students that require those placements,” he said. “... We’ve got to answer whether or not we have the capacity to do that, and if we don’t, why don’t we? And what would it take for us to be able to have that type of capacity?”
These conversations, Malay added, are just beginning. And they will take time, especially as school districts balance other challenging tasks this summer, like planning for the return to in-person instruction in the fall.
“Everybody wants to get those final answers,” Malay said. “And we’ve just got to let processes run their course and we’ll get to those answers.”