MID-CITY — Things are looking up for Concord Prep.
It’s Sunday and a handful of teenagers from the small private high school are dressed in medieval garb, practicing lines in a student’s back yard in preparation for a school production of “The Tempest.”
The scene is fitting for the general state of the school these days. There are only a few students in the Shakespearean play and just 37 enrolled at Concord Prep, formed on the fly following the closure of its parent, Concord High, which filed for bankruptcy in November and had to close its doors, putting the futures of roughly 50 students and their teachers in jeopardy.
But despite the small numbers and lack of an auditorium to stage the play in, the students are having fun — a tight knit gaggle of adolescents that seem truly energized by each other and the drama teacher.
The play is being held at Santa Monica’s Main Library instead of a school auditorium because Concord Prep doesn’t own its own facilities. It is currently housed in the Boys & Girls Club. Concord High was located in an office building on Wilshire Boulevard, but when former director Susan Packer-Davis-Hille fell behind on rent, the landlord filed for eviction.
Packer-Davis-Hille resigned, along with her husband, Eric Hille, and left three parents to deal with the aftermath. The newly formed board of directors of Concord High said they had no choice but to file for bankruptcy after pouring over the school’s finances, finding questionable expenditures made by Packer-Davis-Hille. Classes were cancelled.
The school is suing the former director, her husband and son for allegedly misusing more than $1 million in school funds.
Concord High, which was founded in 1973 by Packer-Davis-Hille’s mother and which had a reputation for helping troubled teens go on to Ivy League schools, is operating in name only so that students can receive transcripts.
While rocked by the school’s closure and alleged mismanagement by Packer-Davis-Hille, parents and teachers have rallied and created a new school that students are fiercely defending as a haven of supportive, successful learning.
Teachers said they have solidified plans to continue Concord Prep at the Boys & Girls Club in the fall, and the administration is optimistic about next year’s enrollment.
The administration, comprised of teachers from Concord High with hopes of carrying on its legacy, admits the bankruptcy shook up the faculty, but is confident that the resulting changes will be for the better.
“I see that it was a sort of monarchy where [Packer-Davis-Hille] knew who to keep happy and how happy to keep them as to not cause questions or concerns to surface,” said Max Duganne, director of finance, and a math and social science teacher, “The fact of the matter was that the school was too successful and people were generally too happy to question anything.
“With a background now in corporate finance, I can see that there were no checks and balances and no real business plans to govern a well functioning business.”
These things have already been addressed with Concord Prep, said Duganne.
“There is no longer one person filling the roles of head of school, admissions, operations, and the board. We have different people for all of those roles as to better perfect and specialize. We also have moved away from a system of financial aid where special deals are made for subjective reasons and now use a more objective system along with the majority of private schools”
Other changes include the creation of an endowment and a focus on fundraising, aspects that were never on Packer-Davis-Hille’s radar, Duganne said.
The viability of Concord Prep, though initially unsteady, has impressed parents and students.
“When Susan was at the helm there was no communication, community or involvement,” said Debbie Mahdessian, whose son is in his second year at Concord. “The change has allowed a community to form. I have developed close friendships, and a sense of being a part of a community that is unique and is worth fighting for.”
Students say that while the location shift was abrupt and the class size reduced, they are loyal to the school for the education it provides.
“I am amazed at how the teachers have been able to make the transition seem so seamless, and have continued to provided the exact same level of academics at the old Concord despite the turmoil of this year,” said Miwa Sakamoto, who praises the school’s focus on traditional academics and personal responsibility.
“The teachers are there to teach and to help when things don’t make sense but they are not there to simply hold our hands and do most of the load,” said Sakamoto. “I feel that concord is one of the few places that truly prepares young adults for the reality waiting beyond high school.”
Parents and students emphasized how unique the school is in providing a traditional academic focus while fostering close relationships between teachers and their classes, which are usually comprised of only five to 10 students.
“One of the parents remarked to me that families often have a difficult time connecting with their children in the teenage years,” said Head of School and English teacher Andrew Taylor, “but our teachers seem to have a special knack for it. We get through to them, revive their interest in learning, and instill a sense of ambition again, which can go adrift in middle school.”
Sakamoto recalled how her history teacher made learning exciting through her passion and enthusiasm for each lesson.
“She is able to make these 100-year-old facts into exciting stories that will be forever in my head,” she said.
Marissa DeSiena, who is now vice principal and director of admissions, and who also teaches history, reported that 100 percent of this year’s graduating class was admitted to four-year universities, among them UCLA, Berkeley, John Hopkins University, University of Chicago, Skidmore, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
“I think that many people are not aware of just how successful we are,” said DeSiena.
DeSiena is now coordinating admissions for a summer school session, and hopes that enrollment in the fall will grow to 60 students, now that the price of tuition at the school has dropped significantly — from $29,000 a year to $17,000.
Teachers have foregone benefits for the upcoming year to keep costs at a minimum, and the schools operating budget has shrunk to $650,000, just enough to pay rent and teacher salaries.
“We never gave up,” said DeSiena. “Our hearts and souls are in this school.“