academia, actor, Alan Jay Lerner, alma mater, alumni, baby boom, Broadway, celebrities, Clarkstown, Congers, Cornell, East Ramapo, firefighters, gentrification, Haitian, high school, Hispanic, Hollywood, junior high school, Kendall Pennypacker, maturing, New York City, Orthodox Jewish, police officers, power broker, prep school, prestigious, private school, professionals, professors, public school, RCDS, reverse migration, Rockland, Rockland Country Day School, Rockland County, South Nyack, suburban, Tappan Zee Bridge, Transgender, Transsexual, Ultra-Orthodox, yeshiva
On August 19, a little over two weeks before a new school year was supposed to start, my alma mater announced that their finances made it impossible to continue. They have closed their doors and declared bankruptcy.
No, I’m not talking about my college, Cornell. That school is so large, well-endowed and supported by state government that it would take a collapse of civilization to threaten it with closure.
I’m talking about the Rockland Country Day School in Congers, NY. I went there from grades 6 through 12, the only grades it served at the time. It was a bit of a culture shock for me at first when I went there. I was from a family somewhere in the middle to lower-middle income range, one wage-earner, with typical values of that group. I was entering a school populated by children of members of the entertainment and creative industries (actors, playwrights, musicians, producers, photographers, cartoonists), academics (Ivy League professors), and professionals (doctors, dentists, architects, stockbrokers, attorneys). They had been exposed to so much more than I had when I started school there in September 1963.
At the same time as I was making that adjustment, entering a school that covered grades 6 through 12 brought my gender issues front and center for the first time. Sure I knew that little kids got older and matured. With a brother five years older, I saw his friends in small groups and even played sports with them on occasion (and held my own, thank you). Going from a school that was K-6 to a school that was 6-12, suddenly I had panoramic view of the maturing process of the preteen through late teen years. I didn’t like what I saw. And I didn’t hear about anyone saying that they were going to change gender once they became adults. Homosexuality was rarely talked about. Transsexuals weren’t even on the radar.
But once I became acclimated, I caught up and thrived there. I didn’t get into Cornell because I was cute. I got good grades and good scores on standardized tests. Out of boredom with a teacher who taught only to the middle of the class, my performance in public school started to suffer in 5th grade (same year when it did for my brother) and my parents seized the opportunity to enroll me when one of my public school classmates announced that he would be going there next year.
Based on the remarks I have heard from alumni who graduated from there both before and after me, there are many of us who have fond memories of RCDS. As sad as it is that the school is closing, it is equally sad that it took something like this to bring the alumni closer together.
In a strange way, the school is closing pretty much the way it started. It was supposed to open its doors in September 1958. They hired a headmaster and were preparing to begin this brand new experiment in education in Rockland County. There was only one problem. They kept waiting for the new headmaster to show up to lead the way. He never did. Parents had to tell their children, many of them disappointed, that they would be going back to public school that September.
But the group that started the school was undaunted. They had a vision to provide a better quality of education for their children without having to send them away to boarding school. The found a new candidate to serve as the first headmaster, Kendall Pennypacker. This man arrived with his wife, Ruth, who was the school librarian for many years. The school began in September 1959 with just a few grades in a house in South Nyack, not far from the same Tappan Zee Bridge that had brought a population boom to Rockland County and made it a little easier for people to commute to New York City, turning the county from rural to suburban.
Within a few years, the school received enough donations, Alan Jay Lerner being principal donor, to purchase a plot of land in Congers that was known as the Pitkin farm. It had been home to one of the first women medical doctors in the United States. I won’t go into detail about some of the strange things that were found when the school took position of the property. Suffice it to say that the cleanup and transformation of the farm house and other buildings on the premises into classrooms, a library, an art studio and science labs took longer than expected. Before the school could be ready for classes that year, everyone (faculty, teachers and students) pitched in to put the finishing touches on the place. (A member of the class of ’67, someone whose father won five Tony awards, told me that it was her job to paint some of the baseboards. As one of the younger students at the time, they gave her a job she wouldn’t have a problem reaching!)
Similar to the 1958-59 misfire for the start of RCDS, the school has ended in a similar way. The latest information given to the press was that the parents were told in May that there was a possibility that the school might not continue in September. But then they were assured in June that the school was committed to moving forward another year. This time it wasn’t the head of school leaving that scuttled things. Current Head of School, Jocelyn Feuerstein, was working every angle she could to find a way to keep the school in operation until the cavalry arrived. But it didn’t arrive. The Board of Trustees deemed in mid-August that the school’s finances did not warrant keeping the school open. The chances were too great in their view that they might start the year and have to close down in mid-year, unable to pay the bills. That would have made it even more difficult for teachers to find new jobs and students to move to new schools. Two and a half weeks gave very little time, but at least there is some.
There are short-term reasons and long-term reasons that led to the school’s demise. First the short-term:
- Declining enrollment which meant declining income.
- The sale of the campus to the Town of Clarkstown in early 2018 didn’t save as much money and help finances as expected.
- Negotiations with the Town for more favorable lease terms failed.
- A number of students who were supposed to attend in 2019-20, pulled out at the last minute, lowering enrollment revenue even further. Some sources indicated that many were international students who presumably (based on country of origin) were making significant tuition payments, but some local parents concerned because of the May announcement also found alternatives.
- Efforts to raise funds in the 11th hour from alumni, local businesses, by attracting new students, or to get Clarkstown to reconsider the lease amount were all unsuccessful. Although that May letter had gone out, the reassurance made in June made the board reluctant to send out appeals for donations in any kind of a panic “save RCDS from dying” mode. And so it has come to an end.
The long-term reasons require a longer explanation. They are far more complex. They are also just one person’s analysis. But this one person has talked to a number of people, has a mind good enough to get into RCDS, Cornell and Mensa, and brings some professional skills to the table.
Hollywood, or more precisely Hollywood becoming more and more the center of the entertainment industry compared to New York City: Yes, there is still Broadway theater and there are a few studios in NYC, but in general the stars of Broadway don’t have the same celebrity status they had 50-60 years ago. The exceptions tend to be those who are on hiatus from filmmaking. Lesser box office appeal would tend to translate to less relative income, meaning less ability to live in the suburbs and send their children to an expensive private school.
Gentrification of New York City: After years of flight from the city, it started to become the in place to be again. Converted industrial building lofts in Soho and Tribeca became trendy. As one indicator of how demand changed, a brownstone in a depressed neighborhood like Fort Greene that sold for $20,000 in the mid-1970’s couldn’t be touched for under a million dollars 20-25 years later. As bus and rail service and transportation terminals became more crowded and dilapidated, the commute became more dreaded than urban life, especially as New York City started to get cleaned up and revitalized. Stockbrokers, ad executives, publishing executives, college professors and others who had been part of the professional group that supported RCDS were leaving the county in reverse migration. The supportive community was shrinking and becoming less close-knit.
Demographics: Who moved in to replace the people who moved out? The population of Rockland County has increased in every census, except for the 1920 census. While growth was heaviest in the 1950’s and 60’s, there are about 100,000 more people living in Rockland now that the nearly 230,000 counted in the 1970 census (the year I graduated high school). While much of Rockland was still rural before the completion of the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Palisades Parkway to link the county by limited access road to the George Washington Bridge, it is now the third most densely populated county in New York State outside of New York City (behind Nassau and Westchester).
One group that has moved in heavily is the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. 6.3% of Rockland households speak either Yiddish or Hebrew at home. 31.4% (~90,000 households) of the county’s population is Jewish, many of them school age children, making them the largest per capita Jewish county in the United States. At one time, the Jewish population was well represented at RCDS. At least 12 of my graduating class of 30 identified as Jewish. But the large Jewish population now has given rise to a large number of Yeshivas. This is where many Jewish students now go to school. East Ramapo Central School District is one of only three school districts in the United States where more students go to private school than public schools. While some go to Catholic schools or nonsectarian schools, this is true throughout Rockland. The difference in East Ramapo is the large number of Yeshivas. This is a large group of students who are not candidates to go to RCDS.
Another group that is heavily represented in Rockland is those who are in the public service sector, mainly police officers and firefighters. There are always exceptions, but generally their children are more likely to go to public schools. The Hispanic and Haitian residents of the county also generally go to public schools. 13.2% of the county’s households speak Spanish, French Creole or French at home.
There is still a large group of students who would have been possible candidates for RCDS. But on a percentage basis, it is probably smaller than when the school was founded. There is also a trend towards more prestigious colleges (while small liberal arts colleges are declining) and in turn more prestigious prep schools. Many parents and students are looking for the route to becoming Wall Street wizards, real estate tycoons and other power brokers. A well-rounded education starting in high school doesn’t cut it. This may be another reason so many local students in the lower grades didn’t continue on to high school and graduation. And there is another trend that is affecting the candidate pool for the school. It will be discussed in the next post.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; – Ecclesiastes 3:2