Woodstock Day School’s Head of School Jim Handlin at the new building. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

The last time we went through the Woodstock Day School campus, at summer’s end, all eyes were on the new bridge building centering what Head of School Jim Handlin was terming the upper and lower schools. Funded by Markertek’s Mark Braunstein, the Bridge Building — still in its finishing stages — was designed to include a new cafeteria/auditorium, library, music room and multi-media production studio.

Accompanying projects underway, or recently completed and being touted by Handlin, included whole banks of solar panels, renovations to several existing structures as a means of providing a single arts structure, and a similar building dedicated to the sciences. Playgrounds were being moved, and everywhere you saw students, you saw truly excited, engaged kids.

You can see the same now, when visiting WDS — as some of the school’s community calls itself. And yet there has been a swirl of recent talk surrounding the Day School. Students in attendance with financial aid, we were hearing, have been told they couldn’t return without paying more. And that a large donor had stepped out of the picture.

Handlin largely confirmed the talk.

“We’re going through a phased transition as we move forward,” Handlin said, after noting how the Bridge Building was now completed after several months of delays. “We’ve shed some people, had to go over our financial parameters in order to pay our faculty.”

Overall, the Head of School continued, financial aid at Woodstock Day School had been running approximately $1.8 million in requests per year, out of a total annual budget of $3 million.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that more people needed aid,” he went on, noting how a number of families had come to him with news of lost jobs, or missed raises that had been anticipated.

Speculation has been that there might be a large influx of students back into Onteora and other local schools next fall.

Handlin said that the changes in tuition aid would affect between 30 and 35 families. He noted that all wanted to keep their kids in the school, if they could, and he’d suggested to them to be creative about seeking the needed funds to keep their kids at the day school, be it from extended members of their family or other sources.

He said that the situation wasn’t sustainable, so he decided to bring in an outside Minnesota-based professional entity dealing with school enrollment and grading systems, TADS, to straighten out the school’s aid system, which should be operating at about the 20 percent of tuition level.

“The good news is that a lot of people want to come to the day school,” he added, noting how registrations for the 2012-2013 school year has already surpassed levels usually expected for September of each school year.

According to Handlin, the cost of a student’s tuition at the day school ranges from $12,000 to $16,400 per year, depending at what level the student is between kindergarten and 12th grade. He said that the cost of education at Woodstock Day School was about $10,000 per student, far less than the cost at equivalent local public schools.

Shifting topics, Handlin then noted how he’s been working with the day school’s Board of Directors to up the school community’s annual fundraising goals to $450,000 a year from parents and others in the community.

“We’ve already got $225,000 coming in for this year already,” he noted. “We’re educating our community as to how important such local support is to outside foundations that we are applying to.”

Such activity, he added, had recently brought in $35,000 for financial aid from the Thompson Foundations, with more interest growing.

 

Changes to campus life

As for the new Bridge Building, the school’s greatest gift of recent years, Handlin talked about the changes it had made to campus life, with students now lunching together each day, shoulder to shoulder with teachers as in many boarding schools of high caliber, and a regular morning meeting being held for all students grade 7 through 12, “a sort of town gathering,” as he called it, where topics can be raised and debated by the school, and assemblies attended.

Among recent subjects focused on, Handlin said, were talk about the use of media in other continents, and an assembly featuring Palenville-based inventor Ward Fleming and composer David van Tiegham, whose kids attends the school.

“Kids have to stand in order to speak out,” the Head of School explained. “And much of what we focus on are alternative lifestyles, other things one can do with one’s lives.”

The new building’s music room is offering Suzuki violin classes for kindergarteners and first graders, while the cafeteria/auditorium is being prepped for the school’s annual big play — a production of Guys & Dolls set to run next weekend, March 23 through 25.

“We’re getting requests for spaces from outside groups,” he added, noting how well students have adapted to their campus’ new library, and are starting to learn how to use its high tech production room, under the able guidance of indie film director David Becker and others.

“It’s such a sophisticated system that it takes some getting used to,” Handlin said. “But we’re planning on a lot of collaborative effort.”

With the new building freeing up space elsewhere, the school has adapted others of its buildings into a fully-dedicated arts lab, in addition to science classrooms and what is essentially an entire upper school campus for the higher grades. In addition, the school’s playground equipment has been moved to outside the new cafeteria/auditorium room, the better for students to be watched over.

“This is a much different place than it was when I came here five years ago. Then, I said it would take ten years to get where we needed to be as a private school,” Handlin concluded. “And we are definitely about half way there.”

Because of the complications involved in finishing the school’s new Bridge Building, as well as getting its financial house in order via faculty salaries and shifting tuition aid priorities, the Head of School said no further changes, or projects, were planned for the coming school year.

“The school’s in shape, but we need to concentrate on what we do,” he said. “We’re now planning for our summer activities, which we hope will prove a way for those families not able to stay on for the school year to keep involved with the day school community.”

How’s it all been going for him?

“Five years went by like a shot,” Handlin said. “Just look at the campus and how it’s changed, though. It’s been fun.”++