Closing One School and Reopening It as Another

Winter 2020

By John Rigney

In the fall of 1996, I arrived in Woodstock, Connecticut, having been hired by the Hyde School to live in the dorms; teach English; and coach soccer, basketball, and track and field. I was fresh off the trail and out of the canoe, having led Outward Bound courses throughout Maine that spring and summer. I was an English major who swore I’d never become a teacher but who had also found joy in working with young people as they figured themselves out. The opportunity to join Hyde as it opened its second boarding campus, to be part of a startup, was thrilling—and to have a solid job and a roof (not a tent) over my head at 25 years old was pretty cool, too. 
Fast forward 20 years. In the spring of 2016, I joined Bob Felt, Hyde Woodstock’s head of school, on a call to discuss some information our board of governors shared: Our school had received an inquiry from The Woodstock Academy (CT) about the possibility of buying our campus. After 19 years of growth and building, the school in which I had found my calling as an educator was now considering the idea of shuttering its doors. As assistant head of school, I was deeply torn.
The Academy’s offer was brilliant. It was in line with its long-term facilities plan and development vision. It would instantly meet 95% of its needs by acquiring more than 200,000 square feet of facilities at a fraction of the cost. For Hyde, it was a unique opportunity to consolidate its resources, build its endowment, strengthen its brand, and downsize to one boarding campus during a difficult economic time. Although Hyde was not looking to sell its campus, the Academy’s inquiry and eventual offer was a no-brainer. It was a clear win-win for both schools.
It all made sense in my head, but it hurt my heart and was hard to swallow.

The Offer 

The initial query about buying Hyde’s campus came after a Woodstock Academy board meeting during which trustees discussed the school’s long-term capital improvement plan, and a board member said, “too bad we didn’t buy that campus back in 1996 … I wonder if they’d be open to selling it now.” This comment led Chris Sandford, the Academy’s head of school, and Jon Sturdevant, associate head of school for advancement, to initiate a conversation that would forever change the landscape of both the Academy and Hyde.
Their call with Malcolm Gauld, then-president of Hyde Schools, Laura Gauld, executive director of Hyde Schools, and the Hyde board chair at the time occurred in February 2016. After the conversation, an anxiety-producing, hurry-up-and-wait period full of fits and starts ensued. Board members cautioned us, saying that many, if not most, deals like this fall through. It was a tense and trying six months as both sets of school leaders and both boards sought middle ground. If the deal fell through or was inadvertently made public too early, the Academy would more likely be seen in a positive light, whereas Hyde risked potential ruin, given that talk of selling a campus could raise questions of financial stability and longevity.
Despite it being a sound business decision for both communities, the transactional process was not without pitfalls. It was not a business acquisition in the traditional sense. It was not a buyout or takeover. It was, however, a significant process, involving lawyers and property reviews, environmental records and deeds, and itemized lists of every chair, table, painting, computer, truck, bus, plow, mower, and so on—as well as identifying which party would receive each item. And of course, there were the people: students and their families; housekeepers and facilities workers; the health office and dining staff; and coaches, teachers, and administrators, who had spent a year or two or 20 building the school and sustaining a community.
Fortunately, there was a deep level of commitment and trust from the leaders at both schools to acknowledge and support the people who would be tangled up in this transition—those who would be without a community come June 2017. What easily could have been a ruthless business transaction, was instead, to the best of everyone’s ability, an intentional and thoughtful process.
The runup was intense, with numerous meetings, phone calls, and strategy sessions. These occurred even amid the uncertainties and questions that raised doubts about whether it would happen. Details (and lawyers) seemed to threaten derailment, even into late September. But in early October 2016, both boards reached and signed an agreement, making it clear that the sale would move forward.

The Announcement  

On Oct. 7, 2016, Felt and I gathered the Hyde community to share that we would be closing at the end of the school year. At the same time, 2.2 miles up the road, The Woodstock Academy community announced the purchase agreement for its new South Campus. One group expressed sadness, dismay, and tears. The other cheered and roared with elation. This summarized the disparity of my experience. I spent the year that followed working on personal and professional closure while building excitement for the next step in my career.
There were many preparations needed to make this go smoothly. The board laid out a clear strategic plan in the days before the announcement, while Laura Gauld directed the sale from Hyde’s side, working closely with the board of governors on brokering the details from price to environmental reports. My focus was to work closely with my head of school to manage our community, and we worked with Malcolm Gauld to manage internal and external communications. We collaborated on the message that would be sent via email and shared in personal calls to all stakeholders from both Hyde campuses. We also worked with Jim Cabot of Cabot Strategies for insight and feedback on messaging. We created a plan to initiate contact with all current families within the first 24–48 hours following the announcement. We called the alumni and donors who had generously helped build, renovate, and support the growth of the Hyde Woodstock campus over the years. Our goal was to communicate that we were operating at 100%, “business as usual” through the end of the year and that we remained committed to delivering a top-notch educational experience for each of our students.

Bridging the Gap 

The 2016–2017 school year is one against which I can weigh many aspects of my life and career. Nowadays, I can usually say I’m having a great day because I’m not closing my school. I’m not thinking about how to support my colleagues as they look for their next positions and worrying about where they will land. I’m not helping students and adults process the loss of their community. I’m not thinking about my own children and where they grew up. I’m not struggling with my own loss mixed with the bizarre idea that I’m restarting where I was 20 years ago. I’m not balancing these emotions while simultaneously getting excited about building anew.
In the days after the announcement, I was floored by the level of concern students and parents expressed. All year long, we heard from families: “How are you doing with all of this? What is your plan? How can I help?” This cemented my understanding of community, even as we planned to dissolve the very idea. It reverberates with me today as I continue to work on building a community that cares deeply for its members.
One of the unknowns of announcing in the earlier part of the school year was the question of fallout. Would parents pull their children and put them in a different school? Would staff find jobs and leave midyear, leaving us unable to hire anyone else? How would we maintain school pride? Could we deliver the top-notch year we intended to? In the end, we did lose some staff (a teacher and some adjunct staff) as well as one student. These losses did not define the year. Instead, the community took these in stride and moved through it.
We had to reevaluate many of the year’s scheduled events, including professional development, graduation, and Fall Family Weekend, which was just two weeks after the announcement. We opted to continue with the weekend’s plans and added to the slate a “consolidation” meeting for attendees to discuss the pending sale, the upcoming year, options to transfer to the Hyde Maine campus, and more. Afterward, we rolled out a plan to work on students, staff, and property. And, we doubled-down on our commitment on delivering a great year.
Our goal with students was to help Hyde Bath retain as many of Hyde Woodstock’s students as possible. This began by expanding the partnership between both campuses and creating shared “Hyde Days.” Helping students and families with the next step was challenging. Would that special staff member be there? Would the community feel the same? For seniors, questions arose about everything from transcripts to recommendations to reunions. For underclass students, it was important to transfer and rebuild their sense of community to make the transition to Bath as smooth as possible.
Student buy-in began with a video conference of a dozen students. The goal was to share traditions, discuss hopes, and lay the groundwork for a combined school. I recall it being awkward, but it broke the ice. Following this, three different Hyde Days included day trips to Maine for interested students (and their parents) so they could get the lay of the land, meet teachers, and get a sense of the opportunities.
Our effort with staff was to make sure as many as possible landed with solid options. For some, this meant joining The Woodstock Academy’s new endeavor. For others, it meant transitioning to Bath to join the original Hyde school. Still others headed off to various other independent schools. Our professional development that fall was spent, in part, helping everyone understand the details of COBRA and other health care options and retirement benefit transfers. Another portion of professional development was spent on résumé and cover letter writing, as some staff had not updated these in years. We also provided individual meetings with staff and faculty to offer support as they jumped into the hiring market. To say that many staff members struggled with the uncertainty is a massive understatement.
One aspect of the transition plan was to document everything. How many chairs and desks or beds and bureaus did we have? What about computers and smart boards and Apple TVs? Vans, buses, mowers, golf carts. What stays? What goes? What about 20 years of files, records, pamphlets, and closets of old inventory? We found them all and then had to determine what to shred, keep, and move to Maine. And then there were the gifts and donated items—the modern art paintings, the large clock commemorating a deceased parent, the many bronze plaques listing projects and donors for renovations. I remember waking up sometimes wondering, “Did we remember that? It’s not on the list yet!” Or, as the year wore on, I would open a door and see something that I had walked by for years but now needed to be itemized. This itemization of the school was tedious, but it provided a logistical challenge to distract me from the more difficult and real issue of saying farewell. 

Next Steps

In the midst of all of this lurked the question of my next step. Having completed NAIS’s Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads the previous winter, I was aware of my desire to seek change. I also knew the depth of, and in places, the lack of my own experience. I briefly courted a few head of school searches but didn’t fully believe I was prepared for them or see a complete fit. Having been with Hyde for nearly two decades, I strongly considered the opportunity to build a combined Hyde School at the Maine campus and return to the school’s roots. In many ways, however, the clear opportunity was in front of me. Through conversations with the Academy’s leadership team, I realized that the same enthusiasm and excitement I experienced in 1996 while opening Hyde’s campus might be recaptured in 2017 as I helped the Academy start its next chapter and develop its new boarding program. This building process and the possibilities excited me. Establishing a community within the school, one that would build on more than 200 years of tradition and history, was thrilling. I took the leap.
When I arrived in Woodstock in August of 1996 to help with the Hyde startup, I walked into a former college campus that had not been lived in for years. It took four years to get the entire campus operational and running. And then, on June 15, 2017, the campus returned to its original, pre-Hyde state. Power was on, but otherwise it was a ghost town. As I walked around campus that day, I was struck by the shell that remained. All branding was gone. Everything had been divided up and either put on a truck and moved to Maine or put aside and marked for the Academy. Mostly, however, it was empty. Blank walls and empty classrooms. No pictures. No student work. No signs of ownership. There were no phones or internet because those had not been changed over yet. There was nothing except echoes, memories, and maybe a ghost or two. I was the only person contracted to span the one-day void between both schools.
The next day, The Woodstock Academy’s senior administrative team walked into campus for its first full day of ownership. The first packages they brought to campus included more than 100 large canvas pictures ready to be hung: pictures of students in chemistry garb, studying, on the stage, playing instruments, singing, the championship boys’ basketball team, the girls' gymnastics squad. Suddenly the halls were transformed. It was there: the laughing faces and smiling children—the students were back.
Slowly, I came back into a sense of community. It was different: both much larger (the Academy’s full day and boarding student body is 10 times the size of Hyde’s) and with its own culture. But it was there.   

Lessons Learned 

Some of what I learned in my first 20 years, I have had to learn anew. I recognize that what I learned and loved about my experience in a small, boarding school environment was but a fraction of the opportunities that independent schools offer. It was, however, the foundation on which my understanding of the independent school model is built. Since joining the Academy my understanding and experience has expanded exponentially. At times I felt I knew too much and worried about things far beyond my control. And yet, I believe I saw some of the best of human nature throughout as I witnessed individuals on all sides invested in making the best decisions for everyone involved.
Perhaps as a way to find cathartic release, I have repeatedly asked myself the same question I always pose to my students: “So what?” Followed by, “What does it matter? What does it mean to you?” With some perspective on closing and opening, I have tried to answer these myself. I imagine I’ll uncover other lessons in a few years, but these are the ones I know I could not see or fully understand just a year ago.
1. Transparency. This is an essential quality for leaders and one that was tested for distinctly different reasons over the past three years. As the Hyde board considered the offer from the Academy and started to work through the details, Felt and I bore the weight of the process. Only when it was certain could we be fully transparent with all stakeholders about how we might move forward. This transparency was key once we announced the sale because it allowed the community to acknowledge the pending closure while also honoring the work of the year.
As a leader charged with developing the new residential program at the Academy, transparency was tested in a very different way. The Woodstock Academy, established in 1801, is the 12th oldest high school in the United States, with its roots as a day and boarding school from the mid-1800s. Starting in 2007, it opened its doors for homestays and eventually had two small dorms. Before the purchase, however, it had not provided a holistic and fully functional residential program for close to 90 years. There were an untold number of uncertainties as we framed and designed our program. This was the mantra that helped guide us in the opening two years: “This is new. We are building something. This is an experiment.”
2. Community. I cut my teeth as a teacher, coach, and administrator at Hyde, but also learned to be a husband, father, and friend under the microscope of a boarding community. I had the profound opportunity to close the school I helped build. I believe we did this while honoring the community, its purpose, and its vision. In the closing efforts of that year, we were tighter and more connected than ever, allowing me, the staff, and students to pay tribute to our school with a fierceness and love that I doubt would have been revealed otherwise.
The promise and opportunity of creating a new boarding community within the broader context of the Academy was exciting. What could the new campus and the community mean for the local day population? What might it mean for those students joining us from all over the world and the United States? How might this small 200-acre campus again become home for families and students willing to commit to a boarding experience? This excitement has maintained my drive and interest in building and solidifying this new chapter for the school.
3. Change. I have always been a proponent of experiential education and learning from life’s lessons. Having taught seniors for more than 10 years, I regularly espoused the idea that their future would be better if they embraced and valued change. In the closing year, I found myself choking down the phrases I had once so easily sent off graduates with: “Be open to change and the opportunities as they unfold.” And “You have learned a lot about your strengths and deficits. How can these help guide and lead you?”
As I faced the announcement and worked through the challenges of that year, I had to laugh as alumni repeated my words back to me. I had to go back to the basics of learning in both my professional career and personal life. And, to grow, I needed to embrace change and find the opportunities ahead.
4. Student focus. I found hope in the sale and purchase because I stayed focused on how it might positively impact students and families by creating a powerful educational opportunity, unique among independent schools. Building a new residential program for the Academy required a cultural shift among all stakeholders, one that is still in process. While moving from small boarding into the large day/boarding model has moved me further away from those moments of discovery and self-recognition with students, it has given me the perspective and vision to build communities that serve and educate students. It is these most valuable moments in which students find themselves, discover their community, and settle in.
These simple lessons frame my thinking and leadership now and have made me a better educator and individual. I am proud of being an independent school educator. The learning process of joining The Woodstock Academy continues to be fascinating. After almost 20 years in a fully residential community, my experience and focus was flipped to a predominantly day-school population, which is 10 times larger, and to a hybrid program serving publicly funded and private tuition students—from northeast Connecticut and a dozen other states and from more than 20 countries. As I learn more about the history of New England academies—from Phillips Andover Academy (MA) to St. Johnsbury Academy (VT) to Thornton Academy (ME)—I have been impressed by their longevity and diversity. The roots of the American educational system, both public and private, is in the independent school initiatives of the early 1800s, and today our schools stand as beacons of hope, change, and experimentation, leading innovation in the classroom and in communities. 


On June 2, 2017, Hyde Woodstock celebrated the Class of 2017, the final graduating group of seniors. Following the ceremony, the community gathered for a town-hall-style meeting with alumni, parents, and former and current staff members. We took time to share and talk about our favorite memories, and in some way, endeavored to bring closure through discourse. And we had one hell of a party.
As it closed, Hyde Woodstock retained the majority of the students eligible to transfer to the Bath campus. Seven faculty from the Woodstock campus journeyed north to support the students they had worked closely with and to help launch Hyde into its next phase. At this point, only a few of the original freshmen of that year remain. They will graduate as the Class of 2020, members of both Hyde schools. Hyde Bath continues to offer students from all over the world and the United States a character-focused, college preparatory education.
For The Woodstock Academy, purchasing Hyde’s campus—now known as the South Campus—proved to be a stroke of genius and good fortune as it provided room to expand in numerous ways. It also offered endless lessons in institutional change and growth. The first year required significant adaptation as the shuttle system moved students among the school’s four-block class schedule. The second campus alleviated much of the congestion that had plagued the original campus with 1,100-plus students. While there had been 90 international students in the Academy’s homestay program, there are more than 150 residential students, domestic and boarding, who now live right on South Campus. We have been building and adjusting programs, handbooks, schedules, duty expectations, and more. We have started to develop our own traditions, build our own culture, and nurture our own community.
There was catharsis in the sharing of this journey and story. I am proud of the role I played in both of my independent school communities. I also have immense gratitude for those colleagues and students at both schools who helped offer support and encouragement. These relationships continue to be the glue that binds our communities and will be the glue that helps us weather changes ahead.

In the coming years, other schools may be challenged to face consolidation, reorganization, closure, or acquisition. We may find ourselves called to a conversation out of the blue—one that will momentarily blow our minds and raise questions about the next steps. How educators lead through such difficulty will define our careers but also those of our colleagues. More than this, how we adapt and lead through changes ahead will define the next generation of independent schools and the experience our students have.

Beyond the Horizon

No school leader wants to be faced with the prospect of closing a school. But as author John Rigney notes in this article, more schools may be challenged with facing consolidation, reorganization, closure, or acquisition in the coming years. And as he describes with such poignant detail, it is a daunting and emotionally charged experience. For perspective, leaders who might find themselves in such a position can read “Clarity in Hindsight,” an article by William J. Lippe in the Fall 2019 issue of Independent School magazine. In the article, the former head of school reflects on his school’s closure and what happens when mission gets muddled amid a changing landscape.
Leaders can also check out the NAIS Toolkit: Mergers, Acquisitions, and Other Affiliations, which features a collection of helpful resources, including deep-dive overview articles, case studies, and tips from schools who have been through the process.
John Rigney

John Rigney is assistant head of school for South Campus at The Woodstock Academy, in Woodstock, Connecticut.