hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues February-March 2024


Saving Darrow

Supporters raise $5M to pull a school back from the brink


Head of School Andrew Vadnais stands outside the administration and classroom building at Darrow School in late January after the school’s leaders reversed a decision to shut down at the end of the current academic year. Susan Sabino photo

Head of School Andrew Vadnais stands outside the administration and classroom building at Darrow School in late January after the school’s leaders reversed a decision to shut down at the end of the current academic year. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


After several weeks in which it appeared the current school year might be the last for Darrow School, the private secondary school’s alumni and supporters have rallied to save it.

An emergency fund drive in December and January raised about $5 million in donations and pledges – enough, the school’s leaders said, to reverse their decision to shut it down.

“This is great news,” said Andrew J. Vadnais, Darrow’s head of school, after the school’s trustees announced Jan. 26 that the contributions were enough to keep it running. “We still have a lot of work to do. But this removes the uncertainty and enables Darrow to remain open and continue in operation.”

Darrow, a college preparatory school with about 110 students, occupies a portion of the historic Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, just across the state line from Massachusetts. The school has long been known for its small class sizes and individualized approach to learning.

But Darrow has struggled in recent years as a result of economic and demographic changes that are vexing many other private schools and small colleges in the region, and it also faces the need for costly repairs and upgrades to its historic buildings.

In November, Vadnais and Darrow’s board of trustees sent letters to the parents of current students and to alumni warning that the school had become financially unsustainable and might have to close at the end of the current academic year.

They said tuition revenue currently covers only about 65 percent of the school’s operating budget, leaving a gap of $1.5 million to $2 million each school year. Donations and other sources of financial support had not been enough to bridge the difference. In addition, an increasing number of students have needed financial aid in recent years.

The board concluded that an immediate infusion of at least $5 million to $7 million would be required to keep the school open beyond this year. The board also has projected that the school will need about $25 million in the years ahead to achieve true sustainability because of the need to construct a new dormitory and renovate its current structures.

Darrow has an endowment of $4.7 million, but those funds carry restrictions that prohibit their use to cover the current shortfalls.


A chance to regroup
The school launched its emergency fund-raising campaign in December, with students, staff, the school leadership, parents and other supporters reaching out to solicit contributions through letters, personal contacts and social media.

In early January, after exploring potential alternatives such as cutbacks and the possibility of partnership with another institution, the trustees voted to close the school.

But by mid-January, with more than $2 million in pledges raised, the board postponed a final decision and set a deadline of Jan. 25 to raise a target of at least $5 million. By that date, some 650 donors had pledged a total of $4.1 million – with an additional $1 million from an anonymous donor to be received by 2026.

“We owe a lot of gratitude to everyone who worked really hard to achieve this,” Vadnais said. “They never lost faith.”

He said the next step will be to develop and implement immediate and long-range plans to address the school’s underlying problems and place it on a more solid financial footing.
“We now have a backstop that will enable us to stay open,” Vadnais said. “It also gives us time to investigate the physical condition of the campus in detail and gather the information to put together a campaign and grant applications to fund that work.”


Historic setting
Darrow, founded in 1932 as the Lebanon School for Boys, was renamed Darrow School in 1939 in honor of a family that was part of the local Shaker community. The school, which serves grades 9-12, became coeducational in the early 1970s. Today, 85 percent of its students board at the campus, with the rest commuting from nearby towns.

The scenic campus, on the side of Mount Lebanon off Route 20, was the site of the first official community organized by the Shaker religious sect in 1787. The Mount Lebanon Shaker settlement, including the Darrow campus, has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Darrow’s 365-acre campus has 26 buildings, including 16 of the original Shaker structures, as well as athletic facilities and playing fields, hiking and cross-country ski trails, ponds, pastures, orchards, gardens, marshlands and an expansive forest.

Other sections of the former Shaker community are occupied by a branch of the Shaker Museum, which is based in Chatham, and the Abode of the Message, a separate spiritual community.


Fewer potential students
Darrow has experienced and overcome financial difficulties in the past. But Vadnais, who became head of school in 2019, said this year’s crisis was the most serious challenge to its survival.

Vadnais was a teacher at Darrow in the 1980s and later served as head of school at South Kent School, a private school in Connecticut.

“When I came back to Darrow for this position, I knew it was in a difficult situation,” he said. “I have a strong belief in the school and wanted to do what I can to help turn it around.”
The current problems had been building for decades, he said.

Vadnais said some of the issues have been specific to Darrow, but others are the result of larger demographic, economic and cultural changes that have put pressure on many private schools and colleges in recent years — forcing some to shut down.

Chief among these is the declining number of school-age children in the United States, a trend that began with the recession of 2008-09. Federal statistics show the nation’s birth rate fell nearly 23 percent from 2007 to 2022, from 14.3 to 11.1 births per 1,000 people. As a result, high schools and colleges now face what some are calling a demographic cliff.

The challenge of recruiting from a shrinking pool of students was a factor in the decision by the College of Saint Rose in Albany to shut down at the end of the current academic year, and it also contributed to the demise five years ago of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Green Mountain College in Poultney and the College of St. Joseph in Rutland.

Among private high schools, between 2018 and 2023, some 36 percent of members of the National Association of Independent Schools, or NAIS, reported net enrollment drops, with 14 percent reporting their enrollment had declined by more than 10 percent.

The Covid-19 pandemic made this situation worse but was not the primary cause of Darrow’s recent crisis, Vadnais said.

“There’s been a real change in the landscape for smaller independent schools, based in situations that originated with the recession of 2008,” Vadnais said.


A shifting market
Economic changes over the past 15 years also have contributed to a more competitive environment in which smaller and less prominent private schools like Darrow found it more difficult to attract students.

Previously, parents and students might have applied to an elite prep school and also to a school like Darrow as a second choice, Vadnais explained.

“If they didn’t get into their first choice, they’d come here,” he said. “But since the recession, the well-known schools eased their admission requirements. That meant students who would have come to Darrow before went to those schools instead.”

Another factor in Darrow’s case has been a decline in international students. Nationally, the number of international students in K-12 schools fell 41.5 percent between the calendar years 2018 and 2021, according to the NAIS. And the total number of students from China has dropped by nearly two-thirds.

Vadnais said the Covid pandemic was a significant factor in the loss of international students. In addition, he said, some parents in other countries have been concerned about the political and social climate in the United States, including the rise in school shootings.

Although the overall flow of international students to the United States has begun to rebound as the pandemic has faded, the issue remains a problem for schools like Darrow.

“Parents who do send their children to the U.S. for school have become more selective and go for the schools that are more visible,” he said. “It’s difficult for schools like Darrow who can’t send recruiters abroad to reach them.”


New focus on mission, contacts
Vadnais said many independent schools, including Darrow, have failed to act swiftly enough to adjust to the economic and demographic changes.

“Many schools should have paid more attention to what was happening and addressed these issues earlier,” he said. “At Darrow, we’ve learned a lot during this crisis, and we’re getting smarter. But we should have gotten smarter sooner.”

The recent crisis revealed, for example, that Darrow had not been as effective in maintaining relationships with alumni and other supporters as it could have been, he said.

“When we called alumni during the recent phone-a-thon, a significant number said they had not been contacted by the school in years,” he said. “They were unaware of our problems. But once they were informed, they quickly offered to help.”

That has made communications a priority.
“It showed us that we need to be more proactive, open and transparent in our outreach,” Vadnais said.

On another level, he continued, the crisis pushed the school to define its identity and mission in more specific terms.

“As a school, you have to figure out what your niche is and market the heck out of it,” he said. “When we were trying to identify reasons to support Darrow during the campaign, one of the things we struggled with was identifying what that niche is for Darrow.”

In a general sense, Darrow has always emphasized providing a setting that supports students on an individualized basis within a diverse community. Its small class sizes – the school has a student-teacher ratio of about 4-to-1 – allow for a lot of individual attention.

Darrow also has drawn students who may have had had difficulty learning in traditional academic environments or have experienced social or emotional challenges.


‘Darrow changes lives’
In addition to allowing close interactions between students and their instructors and advisers, Darrow’s program is activity based, with extracurricular activities and programs such as Hands to Work, in which student crews perform community service or on-campus tasks such as harvesting vegetables for the Darrow kitchen.

“We knew that even when Darrow is not the first choice for a student, once they come, they have a positive experience,” Vadnais said. “But we had to identify exactly what the reasons for that were and identify the type of students Darrow would be perfect for.”

They decided to ask current students, alumni, parents and faculty for feedback and collected their testimonials into a booklet to support the drive.

“The responses we got back were powerful, and very heartening,” Vadnais said. “And when put them together, we found similarities that extend from the experiences of those who attended in the 1960s to today’s students.”

Common themes were an appreciation of the size and setting of the campus, the personalized approach to learning, and a strong sense of community among students, faculty and staff.
One student, for example wrote: “Darrow changes lives and I know that because it has changed mine. Darrow’s commitment to diversity, growth, and community helped me get out of a prison where I thought I’d be stuck forever. I think about my future and for the first time I feel excited and positive, not just scared and nervous.”

The mother of another student wrote: “As I’ve reached out looking for help for Darrow, people have asked me, ‘Why, what’s so special about Darrow?’ And my responses have boiled down to heart. Darrow has heart: a big, encompassing, kind, inclusive heart. A heart that values learning, how to learn and learning how to be the best self you can be. … The intentional community of Darrow is unique.”

Vadnais said the crisis has been difficult but also has reinforced the sense of commitment within the school’s community and provided a renewed baseline to tackle its problems and move forward.

“It made clear to us that Darrow is a welcoming space for kids who learn differently and that it encourages self-discovery,” he said. “The next challenge is how to get word of that out to the public.”