Head of Compass School to step down

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WESTMINSTER — Rick Gordon, the longtime head of The Compass School, will step down at the end of the school year, with assistant director Eric Rhomberg taking his place.

Gordon, 60, of Westminster, is one of a small group of parents and community members who founded the independent school more than 20 years ago. The school was created to help students who were having a hard time, either academically or socially, in a traditional learning atmosphere.

Rhomberg, 58, also of Westminster, has been with the school almost as long as Gordon. Additionally, he was the director of the school for a couple of years when Gordon and his family were traveling on sabbatical. He is currently a teacher at the grades 7 through 12 school.

There are about 12 teachers at the school, with an additional three as staff, to serve the 65 students, Gordon said.

Gordon said the change was largely driven by a personal decision. He said his partner lives in Chittenden County and he no longer wanted a weekend-based relationship.

The Compass School, now in its 21st year, is a small school, with a focus on individualized and experiential learning. Gordon said the school has had as many as 75 students in the past.

"It's healthy to have change at the top," said Gordon. "The foundation is really solid. The building is in good shape, finances are solid."

The school was in the news last year when the IRS temporarily suspended its tax-free status, but after an exchange of paperwork, the special status was quickly reinstated, Gordon said.

He said parallel issues with the Vermont Department of Education were also resolved last summer, with another five-year state license issued, along with words of praise for their academic program.

"I'm very happy with our program," said Gordon, who has a PhD in education from the University of Colorado. In addition, Gordon is a member of the Westminster School Board.

Rhomberg said the school's challenge is continuing its main mission, and to do it sustainably.

"We're not looking to make huge program changes," he said, noting he would be looking at "exploring partnerships with the public school system."

Gordon said when the school was first founded, it was hoped it would be an alternative within the public school system. But that never had strong support, he said.

Roxane Blake of Weathersfield, one of the co-chairwomen of the school board of trustees, said Gordon let the school's board know he would be leaving months earlier, and she said Rhomberg is the perfect replacement.

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"It's a nice comfortable fit. We will miss Rick," said Blake, who along with Gordon and about 10 other parents and educators founded the school more than 21 years ago.

Rhomberg previously taught chemistry at Brattleboro Union High School, where he was named teacher of the year, according to Gordon, before he started working at Compass.

Gordon said it would be very difficult if not impossible for an outsider to come in and lead the school, even though the school's curricula and goals are well established.

Blake disagreed. "It's a unique environment," said Blake. "But it would not be impossible."

She said that Rhomberg will do a great job leading the school. "It will be a slightly new era. The families are very happy," she said of the change in leadership.

Gordon and Rhomberg, in a joint interview Monday at the school, said they hoped The Compass School would be able to work out a partnership of sorts with schools in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union.

Many of Compass' students come from Westminster, which has school choice for the middle school years. A large number, Gordon said, also come from as far away as Marlboro.

He said most of the students come from Vermont schools that have school choice, although there are a handful of Vermont students whose families pay tuition for them to go to the school.

There are no boarding students, and Gordon said the tuition at the school is based on the average Vermont tuition of $15,933. He said Compass is able to teach students for less than public schools, between $5,000 to $8,000 less.

He said contrary to public perception of the private school, 50 percent of the Compass School's students qualify for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of family poverty, which he said is slightly higher than the students in the Windham Northeast school districts.

Gordon praised Rhomberg as the perfect leader for the school. "He's incredibly well-loved by parents and students," and the students and faculty hold him with high respect, Gordon said. "He's a guy with a big heart."

And not only that, he plays the bass guitar in a band, and gives music lessons at the school. In fact, Gordon said, when he announced to the school last week he was leaving and Rhomberg taking over, the students wanted to know about music lessons.

"He's cool: he plays funk and can rap. He's got a huge amount of skills and he's a brilliant teacher," Gordon said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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