Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Education sector mushrooms

Schools flourish as other businesses falter in weak economy

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J. Adam Fenster/The Gazette
"We believe this project will result in a world-class school that will be a symbol of hope to individuals with learning disabilities," says Anthony Messina, head of Chelsea School, a private school in Silver Spring, which plans a multimillion-dollar expansion.

Despite the economic slowdown affecting some private schools, many Maryland schools, universities and other educational institutions are raising millions of dollars to fuel ambitious expansion plans.

Meanwhile, education companies are growing, both organically and through acquisitions.

From the relatively small Chelsea School in Silver Spring to the state's largest private employer, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the expansions paint a contrasting picture to the one of many companies hunkering down and cutting workforces and space.

They also contrast to some private schools losing enrollment and even shutting down, as was the case with The Newport School. The Silver Spring private school, which opened in 1930, closed this year because of dwindling enrollment and funds.

Education and health care — which many institutions offer degrees in — have added jobs this year in Maryland, as other areas such as finance and construction shed employees, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures.

Chelsea, a college preparatory school for students in grades five through 12 with language-based learning disabilities, launched in June its own four-year, $12 million capital campaign for an expansion. Leaders also hope to raise an additional $8 million for a staff development endowment, student scholarships and technology upgrades.

Having someone as recognized as Daniel Libeskind, a renowned architect whose projects include the new one at the former World Trade Center site in New York, as one of the lead donors and the design adviser to the school's Board of Governors for the addition, is huge, said Anthony Messina, head of Chelsea School.

"His involvement has opened some doors," Messina said.

The tighter economy has made some potential donors a little more cautious, although it is early in the capital campaign, he said.

"We are searching for new and creative ways to reach out to the community," Messina said. "We believe this project will result in a world-class school that will be a symbol of hope to individuals with learning disabilities. We plan to affect thousands of kids' lives in the next 30 years."

The school has developed a Web site and color brochure, and plans events such as the black-tie fundraiser Sept. 18 at the Decatur House in Washington. Libeskind is slated to be the keynote speaker for that fundraiser, which also plans to include the launch of a new film on the school.

While construction is at least four years out, the design by architect Robert Claiborne, a protégé of Libeskind, shows a two-story school library, new science, technology and fine arts centers, a renovated gymnasium and an underground parking lot. Plans call for not just expanding the teaching staff and workforce at the 40-employee school, but creating more opportunities for local entrepreneurs, with the present administrative building converted into an incubator for fledgling companies and visiting researchers who work in the language-based learning disabilities field, Messina said.

Curriculum will include instruction in biotechnology and computer programming, particularly related to gaming. Replicating the school across the nation is also under discussion, he said.

Chelsea should have about 80 students this fall and hopes to add 10 more or so by the end of the school year, Messina said. Almost every student is publicly funded.

"They are very capable students who work hard," Messina said. "Last year, 87 percent of our graduating students went to college."

Among the other private schools planning expansions is Friends Meeting School in Ijamsville, which is slated to break ground by January on a $3.2 million, 21,000-square-foot expansion that will include a new performing arts center, gymnasium and classrooms, said Annette Breiling, head of the school.

"Enrollment is about the same as last year," Breiling said. "This will give us the possibility of adding a high school later, although we don't yet have the official approval to do that."

More university expansion plans

Johns Hopkins University, the state's largest private employer with more than 24,000 employees, according to a state survey last year, seemingly is in continuous expansion mode.

Besides numerous projects at its Baltimore campus, the university plans to beef up its 215,000-square-foot Rockville campus to more than 900,000 square feet over the next decade.

The campus, in the Shady Grove area of Rockville, opened in 1988 with almost 900 graduate students in public health and engineering. It now has more than 4,000 students in degree and certificate programs that include business, education and the arts and sciences.

Public institutions are also expanding, and many raise at least some private funds through capital campaigns. Montgomery College, which has a foundation that is in the midst of a two-year campaign to raise $25 million in private funds, plans to open a 32,000-square-foot, $6.7 million technology and business incubator at its Germantown campus this fall.

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.