The Crotched Mountain Foundation announced the news back in June: After 67 years, it would be closing its school for children and young adults with autism and other disabilities.
Crotched Mountain CEO Ned Olney attributed the “excruciating decision” to the financial pressures of COVID-19, which caused enrollment at the Crotched Mountain School to drop off while simultaneously prompting costs to rise.
“We’re one more victim of COVID,” Olney told the New Hampshire Union Leader after announcing the news. “As a social service organization, we were living close to the line budgetarily. COVID pushed us over the edge.”
But then, teetering there, Crotched Mountain caught a break. Following the announcement, Gersh Autism swooped in and agreed to purchase the Greenfield, New Hampshire-based boarding and day schools, allowing them to stay open under Gersh’s ownership. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
It’s just one of several rescue deals the for-profit provider of autism educational and support services is currently eyeing, according to Kevin Gersh, founder, CEO and chief autism officer at Gersh Autism.
“When COVID hit, we knew that a lot of schools were going to struggle,” Gersh said. “So we’re actively pursuing schools that still have a little life left in them to resurrect them.”
Headquartered in Huntington, New York, Gersh Autism operates schools and programs for children with autism throughout New York state, Washington state and Puerto Rico. While the company offers the full continuum of services for children with autism, it specializes in serving 5- to 21-year-olds on the spectrum who don’t succeed in standard public education systems.
Public schools then pay Gersh Autism to teach those children at one of its Gersh Academy locations.
Currently, Gersh Academy serves a combined total of about 300 to 400 children per day, according to Gersh. But that number will soon shoot up even higher, thanks to the company’s deal with Crotched Mountain and other potential acquisitions.
“Crotched Mountain is going to almost double our size,” Gersh said. “And there are lots of other opportunities. These schools need help, and we can help them.”
Like Crotched Mountain, many schools for children on the spectrum have been pushed to the brink of collapse due to COVID-19. So far, Gersh has been contacted out of the blue by six different schools in “dire straits.”
“They call me saying, ‘Do you want my school?’” he said. “And it’s happening all over the country. … [One owner] was willing to give me the school free of charge, just to keep it open.”
Financial problems are largely to blame. While specialty schools for children with autism come in all different shapes and sizes, many have private pay or non-profit models.
Amid the coronavirus, most private pay schools have seen a drop in enrollment, as parents are hesitant to pay for distance learning. Meanwhile, those with non-profit models — such as Crotched Mountain — have struggled to afford new, additional COVID-19-related expenses.
Meanwhile, Gersh Autism has been able to weather the storm thanks to its scale and business model, which includes contracting with school districts and operating as a for-profit. Gersh strives to make sure both the educational and business aspects of his company are healthy to best serve students.
“Sometimes that ‘for-profit’ word is frowned upon, but a lot of non-profits are going out of business,” Gersh said. “Crotched Mountain was one of them.”
Gersh Autism has leveraged its resources to stay afloat. For example, when the coronavirus shut down schools back in March, Gersh immediately purchased 300 computers for students and fully transitioned to an online learning platform. Plus, he strategically cut hundreds of staff members.
“Very seldom do you get to stop the train, take everybody off and then only put the people back on the train that you want,” Gersh said. “So when COVID hit, I fired 426 people in one day, and then I brought back over 300. It was an opportunity to really thin the herd and only bring back the very best, most talented, passionate people.”
This school year, Gersh Academy is doing a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, with children spending two days per week online learning at home. It’s also working on developing an online program capable of serve children all around the world.
It’s all part of Gersh’s long-term plan for the company.
“The immediate vision is to develop a really strong, online distance learning platform so we can truly support our existing students to the best of their ability,” Gersh said. “Then, phase two would be to save as many schools as we possibly can and really develop a national footprint of high quality and high standards in the autism world.”
Crotched Mountain represents the first step in phase two of that plan.
Starting Nov. 1, Gersh Autism will assume full operational and financial responsibility for Crotched Mountain’s day and boarding schools. From there, the pair will share in best practices with the goal being to improve both schools.
For example, Crotched Mountain’s several-weeks-long training and onboarding programs will remain in place, while Gersh hopes to eventually also give students access to its vocational programs and driving school.
“I like the expression a rising tide raises all the boats,” Gersh said.
And those tides could soon rise even higher with the completion of additional rescue deals: While nothing is set in stone, Gersh is already discussing the acquisition of two more struggling schools on top of Crotched Mountain, he told BHB.
“We’re very interested in rollups,” Gersh said. “There weren’t enough autism schools prior to COVID. Now what are these parents going to do? So we want to save as many [schools] as we can.”