Purchase by Seven Hills Foundation keeps Crotched Mountain School open

Contributing Writer, The Keene Sentinel
Published: 11/21/2022 1:31:35 PM

Parents at a specialty day and residential school for students with autism received an email last month announcing that the one-of-a-kind facility would be closing in 30 days and they would need to find another place to educate their children.

Then came another surprise announcement, on Nov. 7 — less than two weeks from the previously announced Nov. 18 closing — that the school wouldn’t be shuttering after all, thanks to Worcester, Mass.-based nonprofit Seven Hills Foundation’s agreement to purchase it. And now that Seven Hills Foundation has received a license to operate the facility, services can continue.

Kevin Gersh, founder of the for-profit Gersh Autism, which had operated the facility on Crotched Mountain in Greenfield since 2020, made the announcement public on the facility’s website.

“We are thrilled to share a new update about Crotched Mountain School,” Gersh wrote in the announcement, which was also emailed to parents. “I am thrilled to share that we have found an ideal partner to continue all operations at Crotched Mountain Campus. The school will not be closing.”

The announcement said Seven Hills Foundation, which Gersh described as “one of the largest nonprofit human services organizations in New England,” had agreed to take over the unique mountaintop campus and continue its operations.

In an email, Gersh did not answer when the sale will be complete.

Seven Hills Foundation has a historical connection to the decades-long tradition at Crotched Mountain, a property that has provided residential and day-school educational services for students with special needs for about 70 years.

David Jordan, president of Seven Hills, was president of the Crotched Mountain Foundation from 1985 to 1995, according to the announcement by Gersh, who credited Jordan with leading development of many of the amenities still enjoyed by students there today.

“This will be a bit of a homecoming for me because I dedicated a significant part of my professional career to making this school one of excellence,” Jordan stated in announcing the agreement. “I look forward to creating a new and promising future for Crotched Mountain School.”

The school, which currently serves 38 students, will be part of the newest Seven Hills affiliate, Seven Hills New Hampshire. The transaction includes the 125-acre campus and all of its facilities.

Roller coaster ride

For parents, who have said placing their child at Crotched Mountain provided resolution to an often years-long struggle, the latest announcement has been one more twist in a roller coaster that has lasted since 2020, when Gersh stepped in to save the facility, then run by a nonprofit, from shutting down.

Legacy by Gersh Crotched Mountain, as the new iteration was named, was plagued by operational challenges, a review of state inspections showed. Inspectors from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services visited on 15 occasions, beginning in February of 2021, and found the facility to be out of compliance on 14 of those visits, the records indicate. In an email announcing the school’s closing, Gersh attributed those problems to an inability to properly staff the operation.

Parents first heard of the closure in an email from Gersh on Oct. 17. In that email, they were told they would have until January to find a new placement for their child.

Later that same day, another email, with a new twist – after hearing of plans to close the facility, DHHS announced that it would revoke the school’s license on Nov. 18. At the time, a DHHS spokesman said the department had been working with the school for months to come into compliance, and that student safety remained a serious concern as winter approached. Legacy by Gersh is licensed to serve up to 86 students.

Jake Leon, spokesman for DHHS, said Nov. 14 the department was aware of the potential sale to Seven Hills Foundation, and confirmed Legacy By Gersh’s license to operate as a residential child care agency was valid only through Nov. 18.

“Licenses are not transferable. Any organization looking to operate in NH must obtain its own license,” Leon stated in an email.

On Nov. 18, Leon stated that Seven Hills Foundation had received its license, effective Nov. 19.

A sigh of relief

For some parents, hearing that the school would remain open prompted a sigh of relief.

Tammy Andros, who lives in Sullivan County, said her teenage son can become “highly aggressive” and was “kicked out” of Spaulding Academy in Northfield last year. She was initially able to place him at a residential facility in Mississippi, but the distance was too great for regular visits, so he has been at Legacy by Gersh, living there during the week and going home on the weekends, since July.

Andros doesn’t consider it an ideal situation — her preference would be for her son to live at home, with the proper supports.

“I have been trying to get in-home supports as well as board-certified behavioral analysts in-home for three years and have failed because of the lack of services in Sullivan County,” she said.

Without those supports, though, she said life at home with her son was dangerous; she has had to call police several times a week, and sought refuge at the emergency department at Valley Regional Hospital to find a safe enough space for him to calm down.

Andros said her experience with Gersh has been imperfect. She expressed some frustration with what she described as communication issues with her son’s care team.

“I don’t feel as though I am kept informed of his progress as much as I should be. I have requested several times a meeting with his team to see what [their] strategy is so I can better assist him at home,” she stated in an email. Since her son lives at the school during the week and spends weekends with her, keeping his care consistent would help him negotiate the transitions.

Andros, who was aware of Gersh’s licensing issues, said she wasn’t surprised to hear of the facility’s closing. Yet, despite the problems she said she observed, her son was making progress. He was becoming better able to regulate himself and has been less aggressive, she said, so she is planning to keep him there now that it appears the school will stay open.

“It was a relief to hear someone stepped up,” Andros said. “I am hoping that the new staff will be able to make sure that mistakes are not being made and that these children are cared for. To be able to keep my son close to home so we can continue with our progress at home is good news for us.”

For Carol Nally O’Leary, the connection between the new prospective management and the Crotched Mountain Foundation is promising.

“My son went to Crotched Mountain for six years, between 2011 and 2017,” said Nally O’Leary, who lives in Nyack, N.Y. She said she struggled for years to place her son, who has autism symptoms as well as a mood disorder and scores in the normal range for intelligence.

“The State of New York didn’t have anything for him,” said Nally O’Leary, who said she and her son endured years of public school, which was “ridiculous … When you have a kid with a high IQ, it’s extremely hard to get service for him.”

She said a violent outburst at school finally convinced administrators to approve of an out-of-district placement, and they gave her a list of possible facilities. A couple of them, in Massachusetts, were on the verge of closing and are no longer in operation. Some looked like “a zoo,” she said, and another had a recent fatality. Crotched Mountain was farther from home than she liked, but it was still near enough for visits on the weekends.

At Crotched Mountain, Nally O’Leary said, her son was both safe and educated. The school had things none of the others did, such as a bowling alley, a swimming pool and a tranquil, secluded setting. Her son discovered a zeal for art there and stayed there until he was old enough that the State of New York was no longer responsible for his education. He now lives at a group home.

“He did really, really well there,” Nally O’Leary said of Crotched Mountain. Hearing that the facility might not be closing after all ,  but beginning a new chapter, she said, “that’s fantastic news.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 


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