Sunday, December 23, 1990
IDYLLWILD -- For 60 years the Elliott-Pope Preparatory School has educated children of the famous and wealthy, turning often unmotivated teen-agers into college-bound graduates with its formula of rigorous academics, live-in faculty and wilderness study programs.
Nestled beneath a canopy of pines and oaks outside Idyllwild, the school has cultivated the children of Frank Sinatra and Art Linkletter as well as the offspring of many American corporate captains and foreign magnates.
Its long history and celebrated alumni, however, have not been enough to save Elliott-Pope from two formidable predators--declining enrollment and the recession. Financially crippled, the coeducational school will close its doors for good Dec. 31, leaving 135 students--most of them boarders--stranded in the middle of their academic year.
David Goodsell, who took over as headmaster at Elliott-Pope in July, calls the school's demise a "tragedy" caused by a confluence of unfortunate events.
Dipping enrollment was the chief culprit. Budgeted for 140 boarding students, the school instead got just 105 this year. With annual tuition for live-in pupils at $16,800, that shortfall caused a significant jolt.
Meanwhile, economic jitters prompted the school's bank to recall the line of credit that had served for years as a financial cushion for Elliott-Pope.
And in the end, when administrators and parents mounted a last-ditch campaign for $700,000 in donations to rescue the school, they found the fund-raising spigot shut tight. Other rescue efforts--including an offer to sell to a neighboring private school--also failed.
"This recession that nobody wants to call a recession is to blame," Goodsell said. "We found that people who had given substantially in the past just weren't willing or able to this year... There was no choice but to close."
The news struck the tranquil Elliott-Pope community like a thunderclap. Staff and faculty--several of whom had taught at the school for 30 years--seesawed from disbelief to despair over having to leave the San Jacinto Mountains and hunt for work elsewhere.
Within the close-knit student population there was trauma, anxiety and many tears.
"It was weird, but everybody just got real upset. People just wept," said Joshua Kintz, 16, a day student who had attended Elliott-Pope on a scholarship for five years. "You formed really close relationships there and it's hard to just yank away from all that at the drop of a dime."
Kintz, like several of his classmates, said the chief attraction of Elliott-Pope was its philosophy of allowing students considerable flexibility so long as they kept up their grades.
"They gave you freedom; it was like they respected you," said Kintz, whose 14-year-old sister, Tara, also attended the school. "I actually looked forward to going to school, and that's pretty weird."
Students also praised the 41 faculty and staff members; all were called by their first names, and more than half lived on campus and maintained a perpetual "open-door" policy.
"They weren't like teachers, but more like people we could trust," Kintz said.
Scattered across 89 wooded acres on the edge of the San Bernardino National Forest, Elliott-Pope has the look of a vacation resort. Students lived in attractive tan-and-brown dormitories, and the dining hall was an old hunting lodge with a wood-beamed ceiling, wrap-around porch and two massive stone fireplaces.
The campus boasted an 18,000-volume library, modern gymnasium, equestrian center, swimming pool, rock climbing course and tennis courts. Aside from classroom instruction, students enjoyed "experimental learning" on frequent excursions throughout the West.
Goodsell, who had no idea of the school's financial woes when he signed on as headmaster last summer, believes Elliott-Pope is only the first private, nonprofit school to be done in by declining enrollment.
The nation is "in the bottom of a demographic trough for high-school-aged students right now," he said. "We may be first to go under, but I'm sure we won't be the last."
Margaret Goldsborough, a spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Independent Schools in Washington, confirmed that "the trough is real," noting that the association's member schools experienced a 4.9% decline in 12th-grade enrollment between 1989 and 1990.
"That makes it very hard on schools that are small and focus on the upper grades," Goldsborough said. No other schools have closed this year, she said, but there have been several mergers and one friendly takeover.
In California, however, Elliott-Pope's experience appears to be unique. Mimi Baer, executive director of the California Assn. of Independent Schools, said nearly all of the association's 124 member schools have "long waiting lists and are doing just fine."
Baer said most schools have an active board of trustees that prepares a long-range plan and develops reserves to guard against financial calamities. "It's possible," she said, that such a foundation was missing at Elliott-Pope.
Goodsell declined to comment on the management of the school before his arrival. But he did concede that marketing, fund raising and long-range planning were "not what they should have been. We had big plans to rectify that this year. Obviously, it was too late."
With final exams now over, most of the students have departed. Many of the boarders have been accepted by other private schools, where they will finish out the year. But the 30 students whose families live in Idyllwild face the prospect of a 45-minute bus ride down the mountain to the closest public high school, in Hemet.
Back at Elliott-Pope, the stable manager is struggling to sell the school's herd of horses and the biology teacher is seeking homes for the snakes and other creatures in his laboratory. The trustees, meanwhile, are looking for a good real estate agent.
In the main lodge, the fireplaces are cold and signs of the life that once flourished there are dwindling. A few backpacks and algebra books are scattered about, and the minutes of the Oct. 1 student council meeting remain posted on the bulletin board.
From her office in a corner of the lodge, receptionist and dormitory mother Paula Fredericks surveys the scene and reflects on the last few months.
"People think of boarding schools as places where rich people dump their kids, but this place was different. We were all like family," Fredericks says. "Saying goodbye to those kids, it was like death, like getting divorced 140 times."
PHOTO: The Elliott-Pope Preparatory School in Idyllwild featured a modern gymnasium, above, and an 18,000-volume library.
Copyright: Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 1998 David Gotfredson