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Former Ellis School head, trustees mum about sudden departure

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By Megan Harris
Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

One week after stepping down as head of The Ellis School, A. Randol Benedict won't explain what led to her sudden departure, and neither will her former employer.

“I'm sure she will do well, whatever she chooses to do next,” said Laura Phelps, executive director for the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, where Benedict serves as board secretary.

“Heads of schools leave for family, they leave for medical issues, they make these choices for a variety of reasons, usually personal ones,” Phelps said. “She has a passion for education and for Ellis as well. She'll be fine.”

Benedict, whose LinkedIn profile lists her as an independent “education consultant,” left Ellis three weeks after school started and four years into her tenure. Her annual compensation was $236,324 in 2011, according to tax records the nonprofit is required to file with the IRS.

Neither Benedict nor any of Ellis' 25 trustees could be reached for comment.

The board of The Ellis School, a private, all-girls school in Shadyside, is finalizing plans to recruit Benedict's replacement, spokeswoman Kitty Julian said.

Robin Newham, former director of Ellis' Upper School, is serving as the interim head.

In August, the board adopted a plan for the school that aims to redefine education for young women in a global society, emphasizes health and athletics, and develops confidence and competence in girls, a slight departure from the goals Benedict set in 2009 that stressed innovative community partnerships.

During her time as the school's head, enrollment declined 13.3 percent, a rate that experts say is a problem for a school that relies on student tuition of up to $26,000 a year.

“Anytime you can track a decline in enrollment, it throws up those red flags to check out what's going on,” said Rick Newberry, president of Enrollment Catalyst, a private, independent and Christian school consulting firm based in Seminole, Fla.

Tax records show Ellis lost more students than three other regional private K-12 schools between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 school years, dropping from approximately 486 students to 410, a nearly 16 percent decline. Enrollment fell at Shady Side Academy and Sewickley Academy in the same period, approximately 2.5 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively. Winchester Thurston School, also in Shadyside, has increased enrollment 4.75 percent since 2008.

“There are always multiple factors as to why a school might be facing a decline,” Newberry said, “but there's no question leadership plays a big role in that conversation. Sometimes changes have to be made.”

When enrollment is down, schools have to seek additional forms of revenue through endowments and fundraising, Phelps said.

“Ultimately, we are tuition-driven schools,” she said.

Annual tuition at Ellis ranges from $9,000 to more than $26,000, depending on the grade level. About 35 percent of students receive financial aid.

The timing, Newberry said, is most telling.

“Obviously, I'm speculating, but something may have been brewing for a period of time,” he said. “It's never a good time once school is in session.”

Julian, who said previously there was no “wrongdoing” involved in Benedict's departure, said the school will keep parents apprised through email and a series of small group meetings to meet Newham and share with the board any questions or concerns.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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