by Annmarie Timmins, New Hampshire Bulletin
Gersh Autism told parents Monday it is closing its day and residential school and recreation program at Crotched Mountain on Nov. 18. The news leaves families of children whose disabilities are too complex for public school with limited alternatives.
The company, which calls the school Legacy By Gersh, cited reasons similar to those that nearly closed the school two years ago: hiring challenges.
“Gersh Autism prides itself on putting children first and providing our students with the safest level of care,” the company told parents in a letter. “Due to difficulties brought on by the pandemic, we are unable to continue staffing Crotched Mountain at the level needed to ensure the high degree of safety and care that Gersh promises to students and families. As a result, we are forced to close this campus.” Gersh Autism cited hiring challenges in its decision to close its day and residential school as well as its other programs at Crotched Mountain on Nov. 18. It’s seeking staff for multiple locations on its website.
The school, located in Greenfield, serves children and young adults with autism between ages 4 and 21 and offers a vocational education program. Kimberly Houghton, spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said there are 15 day students and four residential students from New Hampshire. She did not have the number of out-of-state students; WMUR reported families of 50 residents were notified of the November closure.
Gersh Autism began managing the school in 2020 and finalized its purchase from the Crotched Mountain Foundation last year, said Ned Olney, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer. The foundation is no longer involved in the school and has shifted its attention to helping school districts provide services to keep special education students enrolled. Olney said the announcement was news to the foundation but not surprising because it was similarly unable to find staff and overcome financial woes when it intended to close before Gersh Autism stepped in.
“We sympathize with Gersh. We know they were doing the best they could to try to make it work,” Olney said. “They didn’t take this on with the expectation of failure. They really wanted to succeed and we wanted them to succeed.”
Olney said that when the school was built in 1953, more families and districts sent kids who needed special education services out of public schools. As more services have become available within the public schools, fewer students are placed outside the district. Olney said declining enrollment, hiring challenges, and managing a large school campus were financially untenable.
Gersh Autism owner Kevin Gersh could not be reached. In his “frequently asked questions” sheet to families, Gersh said the company is talking with community partners about potential uses for the property but offered no specifics.
In his letter to families Monday, Gersh said the company has notified the children’s school districts and will work with them to find an alternative placement.
Olney predicted that will be a challenge given the limited options. The school had a wait list when the foundation owned it, he said, and a return to public school is unlikely for many students.
“These are highly complex kids,” Olney said. “If parents and families and school districts had another option, they would keep them at home.” Adriel Opramolla of Rindge, who is deaf blind, has been able to ski for nearly 15 years thanks to adaptive equipment and instructors at Legacy By Gersh in Greenfield. (Courtesy)
Deborah Opramolla’s 30-year-old son Adriel, who is deaf blind, attended the Crotched Mountain day school and began participating in the recreational therapy program at 17 and has continued to participate. He is now an extreme skier thanks to the program’s instructors and adaptive equipment, Opramolla said.
“I want people to understand that some people need supports to do what you do every day,” she said. “With supports, they find their passions and their potential, and they meet people who have the same passion, and it’s an integrated setting. It’s their opportunity to shine in ways we take for granted.”
She’s concerned about the timing because other adaptive ski programs are likely full, too far to travel to, or not as affordable as the Crotched Mountain program was. She’s hoping her son, who typically skied nine or 10 times a season, can ski at least two days this season.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education each have oversight of the school. In a joint statement Tuesday, they said they are working with Gersh Autism to find appropriate alternative settings for school districts and families.
“We share in the disappointment with families that this program will be closing in the coming weeks,” it said. “We know that this will result in an unexpected, substantial disruption for these students on the autism spectrum, however we are taking steps to minimize the disruptions to their educational programming. We have heard stories from parents of children who have been making gains while enrolled at Legacy by Gersh, and we want to continue creating a positive trajectory for these youth.”
In a written statement, Stephanie Patrick, executive director of the Disabilities Rights Center-NH, said supporting families, children, and the adults served through Gersh Autism’s programs will be critical.
“Individuals with disabilities, including children, are best served in their own homes, schools, and communities. However, this is not always possible and the sudden closure of Gersh will be difficult for the children and adults it serves,” she said. “Given the short notice of the closure, it will be challenging for the schools and other organizations that support Gersh’s clients to plan for their smooth transition to other appropriate programs and services.”
Patrick said alternative supports should include providing students services that will allow them to remain in their public schools. And adults should be connected to other community-based programs, Patrick said. She said her organization will connect parents and adults who are struggling to find alternative options with one of its attorneys.
This story was written by Annmarie Timmins, a senior reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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