In many ways, the history of what is now The Williston Northampton School has been inexorably linked to Easthampton’s manufacturing sector — it was created by a fortunate button maker based in the mill town. Its early function was to provide educational opportunities for the common working man. Times, the fortunes of the mills, and the school’s demographic reach have all changed (it is now co-ed) but the basic mission hasn’t.
The story goes that Emily Graves Williston had a houseguest from Europe sometime in the early 1800s.
She noticed the buttons on his waistcoat were covered in bright fabric, and when evening fell, she crept into his room, snipped one of the buttons from the vest, and took it apart to see how it was made. She shared the discovery with her husband Sam Williston, an Easthampton-based button manufacturer whose business had begun to struggle.
The introduction of what became known as the Williston fabric button was the boon he needed to revive his finances — and part of his fortune went to found the Williston School, now known as Williston Northampton, in 1841.
The school’s current headmaster, Brian Wright, Ph.D. explained that Sam Williston wanted to provide educational opportunities to the ‘average working man,’ the types of men working in his then-bustling factory. In that way and many others, the history of the school is intertwined with Easthampton’s business community, he continued, adding and both have had many ups and downs.
Easthampton, for one, is seeing massive change demographically, only recently changing its distinction from a town to a city.
But more importantly, the school’s history mirrors the community-based model for education and collaboration that has become the hallmark of Williston Northampton, as well as the specific challenges that small, private schools face in today’s world.
Wright said Williston controlled the school throughout his life, and consequently, its success rose and fell with his own finances. It flourished when Williston began producing those fabric-covered buttons, but it also suffered when the manufacturing heyday of Easthampton and of Western Mass. as a whole drew to a close.
“By the late 19th to early 20th century, the manufacturing sector in Easthampton started to decline, and he was no longer the force he had once been,” Wright said. “The school began to decline along with the town, and there was no institutional framework for fundraising because it was Williston’s school, and for a very long time he wanted to do things his way. This school has never been a wealthy one.”
In the 1950s, the Williston homestead was donated by the Williston family to the school, which, under the direction of then headmaster Phillip Stevens, soon became the new home to the school on Payson Ave.
“Stevens was charged with devoting much of the school’s resources to that moving of the school from the center of town to the Williston family property,” explained Wright. “When he started, the school was already somewhat behind the eight ball. After the move, it had virtually no endowment.”
Wright said Williston continued to struggle financially throughout the ’50s and ’60s, as did the nearby women’s school, the Northampton School for Girls. In 1971, Wright said Williston and Northampton followed a national trend among boarding schools and small colleges and merged to become one co-educational institution, still located on the Williston grounds.
“Like many schools, it was time for us to go co-ed,” he said, noting that while such mergers can solve some financial issues, they can create others. “It can spur setbacks in terms of the financial model. Northampton brought with it some debt, and we maintained a minimal endowment well into the 1980s.”
Indeed, even today the school remains largely tuition driven, while still offering substantial scholarship and financial aid packages to 40% of its 500-plus students. Those students are enrolled as boarders from 15 different countries and 26 states, and as day students from Massachusetts and Connecticut, in grades 7 through 12, with about a dozen post-baccalaureate students. He said the school has maintained its focus on providing a “triple-threat” education – academics, athletics, and the arts – to a wide range of students hailing from various socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, in keeping with Sam Williston’s original goal of providing education to the masses.
“We try to provide depth and strength in all areas of education,” Wright said, “and try to avoid giving students a narrow focus on any one discipline at an early age, which is actually a trend in many boarding schools today.”
While all types of students are still encouraged to apply to the school, Wright did note that admission policies are more stringent today than ever before at Williston Northampton, due in part to the school’s commitment to providing aid to a large percentage of students balanced against tuition costs. A boarding student now pays $37,000 in tuition, and the school’s day program, which includes about 135 local students, costs $26,500 (middle school enrollment is slightly lower). Both aid and admission are based largely on a student’s overall merit.
“Our job is to continue to offer top-notch programs, but to do that, we need to make every dollar dance,” he said.
Wright, who took on the headmaster’s post six years ago, said his predecessor, Dennis Grubbs, managed the school’s finances very carefully, in an effort to stabilize and grow its endowment, and currently it’s Wright’s challenge to build on that base.
He’s spearheaded a $36 million fundraising campaign, focused largely on strengthening that endowment and procuring unrestricted gifts to boost financial aid packages and faculty salaries, as well as funding for some capital improvements on campus.
“When I arrived (in 1999), the school’s endowment stood at about $30 million, and it declined somewhat in 2000 and 2001. We are at about $38 to $39 million right now, and that’s still inadequate.”
Wright said similar, established boarding schools across the country such as Phillips Academy in Andover and Phillips Exeter in Exeter, N.H., often have endowments in excess of $300 million, and that’s a level Williston has never reached in its 165-year history.
“It’s a little daunting. We also don’t have a hugely wealthy alumni base, so fundraising becomes a dance in which we are constantly making far-reaching plans that will move us ahead steadily.”
One way the school is doing that is by drafting specific plans for improvement ahead of time, in order to provide to potential contributors a menu of choices when considering financial gifts. Williston Northampton recently completed a master plan, for instance, which details several goals for fundraising, construction, and programming in the coming years.
Wright cited a long-range plan to centralize the school on one side of Main Street to alleviate safety and traffic issues students now face when crossing the increasingly busy street to come and go from dormitories. “There’s no set date for that, we need a donor first. But that’s one major reason for the master plan – we all need a good, clear picture in our minds and real, concrete plans to get people excited enough to give money.”
The excitement seems to be growing; Williston just passed the half-way mark in terms of that $36 million goal, and has also secured a handful of grants for programming improvements, including a $50,000 matching grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation that has been used to augment the school’s writing center.
“The school has come a long way,” Wright told BusinessWest. “When we look at those schools that are our competition, we don’t compare in terms of endowment. But when we look at ourselves in terms of being part of the Western Mass. and the Easthampton community, it’s a different story. We’re one of the largest employers in town, and the community still has a very deep connection to the school. Some people still see us as ‘the wealthy school in a manufacturing town.’ We don’t see it that way, but we are careful to work closely with the city in ways that are appropriate.”
Educating the Public
Charles McCullagh, chief financial officer at Williston, said the school tries to remain as transparent and accessible to the town and the region as possible to continue to foster relationships. As a private school that does not pay property taxes, McCullagh said it’s doubly important to ensure residents, especially in a city growing and changing as quickly as Easthampton, that Williston Northampton takes its role in the community seriously.
“We try to be deliberate in making sure that the local community knows that we are working diligently with the town, not just within the town,” he said, noting that one of those deliberate actions to underscore what he calls the “town and gown” cooperation is an annual letter detailing various partnerships, contributions, and other financial data that impacts the area.
As of March 2005, for instance, the school employed 176 full-time and 50 part-time employees. That produced a payroll of $7,090,318, 74% of which went to Easthampton residents. Of the current student body, 33 hail from Easthampton, and were awarded a total of $522,300 in financial aid. The school also logged $577,000 in purchases of goods and services from businesses in Easthampton.
“Like most non-profit organizations, Williston Northampton has to be very mindful of multiple budget pressures,” added McCullagh. “Our health insurance increases, escalation in utility costs, and constrained income from the school’s endowment have made the last few years extremely challenging. Nevertheless, given the extensiveness of an operation such as this, there is bound to be some economic impact to Easthampton and the surrounding area.”
McCullagh listed a number of upcoming and ongoing programs taken on by the school to foster stronger relationships with the city, including a program that will donate 50 to 60 lap top computers, valued at $30,000, to the city every three years, beginning in 2007. The school also routinely donates or discounts the use of various athletic facilities and fields to the Easthampton Public School system, parks and recreation, and other departments. It also assists with the plowing and policing of roads that run through campus, and provides upkeep services for a portion of the Manhan Rail Trail.
“To remain community-minded without an incredibly wealthy donor base and not affect the quality of our programs is challenging, but also critical,” he said, noting that while partnerships between the city and the school often benefit the community, the school has been able to glean support – and, in some cases, shave expenses – through those collaborations.
McCullagh said one recent example was the renovation of Easthampton’s Whitebrook Middle School track, taken on by both the city and Williston Northampton at a cost of about $14,000. The renovation will provide a new track for the school, but also a practice space for Williston Northampton runners while the school’s Galbraith Field is renovated. In turn, Galbraith will be open to the public for a number of uses, from fundraisers to athletic events to use for the city’s annual fireworks display.
“That happens a lot,” he said. “There is a community reaction to financial realities, and subsequent constructive suggestions that are made to solve problems creatively, saving money, time, and energy.”
The school and the city in which it stands are no longer snipping buttons to make a dime, but the metaphor is not lost on many: bright ideas are often found in the most unlikely of places, large and small.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]