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School Is In

The Pine School is getting a makeover. And with $6.5 million in renovations planned, it’s major. Next year, the Stuart campus will close and all classes will be held at the expanded Hobe Sound campus. As administrators reflect on the school’s 45-year-history and its impact on generations of students, everyone agrees on one thing: A united campus will make The Pine School better than ever.

Follow the walkway back past the flowering trees of a lush butterfly garden, past the blue and gold playground and through a hallway of The Pine School’s lower school campus in Stuart on a Friday afternoon, and visitors will find young students learning in all kinds of ways.

In the library, sixth graders are finding books that interest them and reading quietly under a Dr. Seuss mural. In music class, third graders are sitting up straight and learning melodies to patriotic songs to be performed on Veterans Day. In the gymnasium, the fifth-grade class is playing volleyball in teams of six, with some classmates using the serves and passes they’ve learned as members of the lower school’s competitive team. And in the pre-kindergarten class, children are playing quietly with educational toys like small, colorful, plastic triceratops and woolly mammoths.

It’s learning at its finest on the lower school campus on Southeast 10th Street in Stuart. But come next school year, students will no longer be there.

For the first time since The Pine School was opened in 1969, lower school students will have their classrooms 12 miles south, on the school’s Hobe Sound campus. Administrators and the board of directors decided this year to close the Stuart campus and consolidate all students and activities to one location.

As the school is celebrating its 45 years in the community, it’s also inviting the biggest change to come to the private, independent and non-denominational school since the 142-acre upper school campus was constructed just south of Bridge Road in Hobe Sound in 2007.

In connection with the move, the board has launched a “uKnight” capital campaign – a play on words named for the school’s medieval mascot – to raise $6.5 million for the renovations, expansion and endowment needed for the union of the school.

Phyllis Parker, the head of school, says it’s an exciting time for students, teachers and parents.

“We’re very proud of our traditions, but we’re modernizing,” she says. “The school is not the building. The school is the families, teachers and children, and they’re all coming together.”

High Expectations

With nearly 380 total students – 165 in the lower school, from early learning through sixth grade, and 212 in grades 7 through 12 – the co-ed school caters to some of the brightest young minds from Port St. Lucie to Jupiter.

The school competes for students with Saint Edward’s School in Vero Beach and The Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, both of which are similar in tuition but different in philosophy, Parker says.

The Pine School’s tuition averages $16,000 per year (32 percent of the student body receive some form of financial aid), and parents consider it money well spent.

“Academics are very important and are stressed very much here, but at the same time, the kids are involved in a sport and they play instruments,” says Lisa Vrana, a fifthand sixth-grade English teacher whose two children attend the school.

The focus, she continues, is on “the whole child instead of it just being about academics. As parents, that’s what we were looking for.”

The low teacher-to-student ratio (lower school classes max out at 18 children) helps with individualized attention, but positive peer pressure propels many students. The high expectations include that every graduating senior will be accepted into college, just as every graduate has so far.

Fifth grader Ryan Davis, who has attended the school since he was 3 years old, plays on the travel basketball team and says he can see the academic reputation The Pine School has when he talks to friends who attend other schools.

“They think my school is so hard,” he says, taking a break from volleyball in the lower school gymnasium festooned with gold banners announcing athletic wins throughout the years. “It’s not really hard.”

With the help of his teachers, Davis changes classrooms throughout the day for different subjects – a schedule that helps pre-teens with life skills that include organization, planning and responsibility.

Meanwhile, his brother attends seventh-grade classes on the airy and modern Hobe Sound campus, which was designed by renowned architect and Hobe Sound resident Scott Hughes.

With a large environmental preserve, organic garden, playing fields, Smartboards and dedicated classrooms for arts enrichment, the middle and upper school campus has the infrastructure for modern technology and plenty of space for expansion at the end of the long, winding driveway off U.S. 1.

‘A United One Campus’

School officials opened the state-of-the-art upper school campus in 2007, just as the downshift in the economy turned into a historic recession. Enrollment numbers dropped and land where the Hobe Sound campus was leased was put on the market.

Understanding the need for financial stability, the board decided to raise funds to purchase the land under the Hobe Sound campus outright and balance the school’s operating budget.

Leaving the Stuart campus, the next logical step, was a tough decision that took months for the board to agree upon, says Don Mader, the co-chair of the capital campaign.

“There’s a lot of emotion around it,” he says. “It’s a campus that has been there for a long time. It’s not going to make everyone happy, but we went with the majority. They like the fact that it’s a united one campus and the stability in owning the campus.”

Bringing the lower and upper school campuses together would also attract more families from the southern Martin and northern Palm Beach County region and save substantial operational costs. The school would no longer have two dining halls, reduce the need for transportation in between campuses and focus administrative oversight to one location, Parker says.

There were also opportunities to expand the enriching nature of The Pine School’s supportive atmosphere.

Nathan Washer, the head of the upper school whose two daughters also attend school there, says he’s excited to oversee more collaboration among teachers and plans to implement mentoring programs with older and younger students.

“For the younger students, it’s connecting with the older role model student who, when walking through the halls, can offer a high five,” he says. “For the older students, if they see themselves as a role model, it will help with behavior and service. It’s creating more of a family culture.”

Also the associate athletic director, Washer says there will be more teachers to coach sports teams and more families in the bleachers during games. Overall, it’ll be easier for parents whose children attend different campuses.

Homework for Administrators

But when it comes to consolidating schools, there is a lot of homework to do. Administrators plan to complete the transition to Hobe Sound by the start of the next school year, and they’ve already started making the hard decisions about what will be taken and what will be left on the 12-acre Stuart campus. The lower school campus is leased, and the lease ends in June 2015.

The dedication plaque in memory of Ashley Carroll, a fourth-grade student who was killed in a tragic accident, will come. So will the time capsule. Old library books and old desks will not.

“We have so many things in Stuart we want to take. We have a little bit of assessing to see what is essential,” Parker says. “It’s a no-brainer, but it has taken a while.”

Scheduling will be another big task, as the day for lower school students obviously varies greatly from that of the upperclassmen. What about the electronic bell system? When will everyone eat lunch? Parker says those answers will be ready by next fall.

What’s more, funds need to be raised so that the Hobe Sound campus can be retrofitted to accommodate all the lower school classrooms and library. Plans include dedicating the first floor of the Hobe Sound campus to the youngest students and temporarily moving administrative offices to portable units to make way for more class space.

Plus, the school plans to offer a dedicated bus from Palm City and Sewall’s Point to Hobe Sound.

Ramsey Small, the campaign co-chair whose children also attend the school, is leading the charge with Mader to raise money for the retrofit, as well as construction of a new performing arts center. Included in the $6.5 million fundraising goal is $1.5 million for the school’s first-ever endowment.

Small says the campaign has been quietly raising money and has already raised approximately 30 percent of the goal. They plan to expand their campaign to all school families and other members of the public in November.

He’s hoping the community at large will recognize the benefits of supporting a respected private school.

“Of course we want to have graduates that succeed, continue on to higher education and as young professionals come back to the community,” he says. “This helps as we attract a different demographic of employers. It’s important to have an option to provide a first-class education.”

Kids, Families Excited

Meanwhile, the lower school students are excited about the idea of being with the big kids. While all Pine School students wear uniforms, the color of the collared shirts varies with age – so the yellow shirts of the youngest students will soon mix with the green, pink and blue shirts of the teens.

Vrana, who is one of the 76 total teachers at the school, says her students love to visit the upper school campus for the Homecoming pep rally and other special events.

“This (Stuart) campus is beautiful and there is a lot of history, but you won’t lose that history even if we’re not here,” she says. “The other campus is beautiful, and the kids are excited about it. They know it’s coming, and it’s always a big deal when we go down there.”

Ten-year-old Eva Sullivan, a fifth grader who moved from Georgia two years ago, says she loves going to The Pine School and especially playing on the volleyball team. But she wishes that the extended commute south next year wouldn’t cause her to lose precious sleep in the mornings.

“The fact that I have to wake up early, well, I don’t really want to,” she says with a smile. “But it’s a newer school, and it seems really fun. There will be a lot of stuff we can do because it’s the upper school with more teachers.”

Her classmate and fellow safety guard patrol member, Kiele Mader, says she’s also looking forward to better options in the dining hall, bigger playing fields and a better gymnasium.

“I’m excited, but also a little bit sad,” says Kiele, also Don Mader’s youngest daughter. “This was my first school.”

Her father, meanwhile, is looking slightly longer term. He says the combination of campuses, along with a successful capital campaign, will set The Pine School up for years of shaping the leaders of tomorrow.

“We’re going to be in the best shape we’ve ever been in the history of the school,” Mader says. “A group of people stepped up to open the school in 1969, another group stepped up in 2005 to build the high school, and this group is stepping up to set the school up for generations to come.”