Kurn Hattin aims to break down misconceptions

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WESTMINSTER — Despite an almost 125-year history, Kurn Hattin Homes for Children still has to battle misconceptions, the school's leaders said.

Kurn Hattin Homes opened its doors to the community Friday, Nov. 2, as part of its effort to let the public know what happens at the private elementary school for children in crisis.

There were student-led tours of the cottages where the children live and tours of the classrooms, a concert and video geared toward educating people on what the school is really about.

Stephen Harrison, the executive director, said the school is trying to counter an impression in some parts of the region that the school is for troubled children "and had bars on the windows."

The school, in fact, is for children whose families are in crisis and leave children at risk.

"Get Acquainted Day" was launched two or three years ago, according to Harrison, who said the event is held twice a year.

The school, on a hill overlooking Interstate 91, includes a cluster of large "cottages," where small groups of students live with house parents.

The students' days are highly structured, with set times for classes, sports, activities and studying, with one hour each evening for free time.

The Kurn Hattin campus includes academic buildings as well as its iconic farm buildings. While the school once boasted a herd of dairy cows, the school now only has a therapeutic riding program, and students ride and take care of the horses.

Susan Kessler, the head of admissions, said she spends much of her year traveling New England, raising the school's profile and explaining its programs.

A lot of the Kurn Hattin students come from referrals, either from current and former students, professionals, pediatricians and therapists, she said.

The school, founded in 1894, helps children from troubled homes by giving them a stable and loving environment in which to learn. The school welcomes children as young as kindergarten, and students graduate after the 8th grade.

Harrison, who has been head of the school for the past three years, said the twice-a-year community event is also designed to tell the school's story to potential donors and volunteers.

There are now about 30 community volunteers who help the children with everything from reading to teaching them about gardening.

Harrison said the school currently has 86 children enrolled, with half of the students from Vermont, a quarter from New Hampshire, mostly neighboring Cheshire County, and the balance from the rest of New England and New York. Students pay no tuition; the school's budget of $5.2 million is funded largely by donations and income from its $45 million endowment. Harrison said 95 percent of the school's annual budget is covered by charitable giving.

The school receives funding from the federal and state governments for some programs, including its hot lunch program. Harrison said there are about seven local day students who attend Kurn Hattin, and the school receives Vermont state tuition for those students, but he said that only amounted to about $50,000, a small fraction of its overall budget.

Harrison said hiring staff as house parents has been challenging in the past year, and as a result, one of the school's cottages has remained vacant, with about a half dozen children on the waiting list. He said training is underway for potential house parents, who undergo a six-week training period before they are left alone with the children.

During a question and answer period Friday, Harrison said the board of trustees had recently authorized a study to determine whether the pay for the house parents needs to be increased.

Friday's visitors included local people and a church group from Northfield, as well as a leadership group from southern Vermont. They heard Kurn Hattin's award-winning Select Choir, as well as its Jazz Ensemble.

The 40-voice choir, accompanied by Lisa Bianconi, the director of music, sang four songs, including an original, "A Blessing," set to the music of John Lennon's "Imagine," written by a Kurn Hattin graduate, Jahyde Bullard, Class of 2013.

Harrison said the song talks about what a blessing the school is for many students.

"This is where I belong, this is my home," the children sang. "I'll remember this place forever. I will always remember Kurn Hattin Homes."

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

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