For 72 years, the Oakland School in Fluvanna County has helped students with dyslexia and other special needs learn to read, but the pandemic put the school at risk of closure.
In fact, the board of directors decided to close the nonprofit school in January 2022. In a letter to families, the board cited low enrollment and a lack of funding, according to parents interviewed. The news devastated Claire LaPlante, whose daughter has blossomed during her first year at Oakland.
“It was like the rug had just been ripped out from underneath you,” said LaPlante, a teacher at Greer Elementary in Albemarle County. “I have never felt such a sense of hopelessness.”
Paul and Bess Flick, whose daughter attends Oakland, also didn’t want to see the school closed, and they have since stepped in to save the school.
The couple has pledged to provide financial help to keep the school open and invest in more technology, staff pay and capital improvements to the campus. Paul Flick is the CEO of Premium Service Brands, a home service franchise company based in Charlottesville. He declined to say exactly how much money the couple has committed to the school.
Their daughter Anne has been at Oakland for three years. Bess Flick said they started looking at other school openings so Anne could get more specialized one-on-one support, which is a key part of the Oakland model. After looking at different middle schools in the area, they couldn’t find the right fit.
“Then Oakland just kind of fell into our laps, and it was such a gift,” Bess Flick said. “For me, it was in this atmosphere where she was learning to ride horses, she’s building confidence, the muscle strength that she’s getting from walking around the grounds, and then the one-on-one instruction is what set it apart for us.”
LaPlante’s daughter, Olive, is 9 years old and has dyslexia. She started at Oakland over the summer, and LaPlante and her husband decided to keep Olive at the school after seeing how much she benefited. Olive had an individual education plan while an Albemarle County student, but LaPlante said that didn’t provide enough support.
“She could barely read elephant and piggy books when she went and now she’s reading chapter books,” LaPlante said. “… I just never thought we would get to this point where my daughter is confident and reading on her own. Before, she was just frustrated and angry because it was so hard for her.”
‘Oakland is open’
The Flicks didn’t think in January that they would end up in charge of Oakland, though one of their goals as a couple was to eventually become more involved in philanthropy and nonprofits.
“For me, it is just providing the venue our daughter has excelled in to other children,” Paul Flick said. “… We saw the opportunity that could impact many more kids.”
Paul Flick said the school lost a lot of the students who were living on the campus prior to the pandemic, which hurt the bottom line.
Before the pandemic, the school ran a deficit of about $14,500, according to tax documents. Expenses totaled $1.42 million. The school can accommodate up to 25 to 40 students year-round and up to 80 in the summer program. Tuition is $27,000 for the year-round program. Currently, 20 students are attending Oakland.
The Flicks are planning to hire a director of education to oversee school operations because they recognize that they are not educators.
“But we know how to run organizations,” Paul Flick said. “We know how to find good people. We know how to treat them and pay them well, give them the benefits they need to retain them.”
Since stepping up in February, they’ve formed a new board of directors of which they are members and are working to identify what school employees need. So far, Paul Flick said, the list is long but they hope to get through it during this calendar year. Immediate plans include buying Chromebooks for classrooms and making capital investments in the property.
They are also hoping to boost enrollment at the school to 30 for the next school year.
“Our immediate initiative is we want the community to know that Oakland is open and will remain open and definitely has space for, for other kids to discover the magic of this place and also staff members to join the team,” Bess Flick said.
‘Not a normal school’
The school sits on a 45-acre property in Troy near Lake Monticello that includes tennis courts, a pool for the summer camp, a stable, fields and several historic homes. The main house on the property, which serves as the administrative hub of the school, dates back to the 18th century.
“Oakland is such a wonderful place to walk into,” said Lexie Spillers, an Oakland student.
Oakland was founded by Margaret Shepherd and much of the current model is based on her approach, which included a focus on phonics and multisensory instruction, according to the school’s website. She initially started a summer camp, but that later evolved into a year-round day and boarding school, which opened in 1967.
Spillers and the other five students in her class said they liked that there was no bullying or meanness at the school. The horses are also a highlight.
Students can ride at least once a week at the school, which instructors said helps to build their confidence. The stable has about 15 horses, which are either donated or loaned to the school. There are also a couple of goats, miniature horses and donkeys.
The school is geared toward rising 2nd- through 8th-grade students.
Their teacher, Jo Hardy, said she sees progress in her students every day. She’s worked at Oakland for about seven years and was a public school teacher for decades.
“This is not a normal school,” she said. “That’s what makes it special.”
LaPlante said most of the school day at Oakland is spent on reading and phonics, which teaches the relationship between letters and sounds. She said Olive also is learning about other things, from plants to geography to math.
After the closure announcement, LaPlante looked into other schools in the area. Most were already full for the next school year. She even thought of using the money that would’ve been spent on tuition to hire Olive’s Oakland teacher.
“Because she knows what to do, and I just need my child to read,” LaPlante said. “That was my main goal. I knew going back to public school would not be the answer for her right now.”
She does eventually want Olive to return to public school but after she finishes the Oakland program, which could take two to three years.
As a public school educator, LaPlante didn’t think she would send her daughter to private school, but she said sometimes kids need different things.
“I just couldn’t let her fall through the cracks at public school and just be frustrated and angry because she can’t read,” she said.
When the Flicks said they were stepping in, LaPlante said she was grateful.
“I just felt really hopeless because there’s nothing like that here besides Oakland,” she said.