The John Dewey Academy Soon-to-be Occupant of an Historic New Marlborough Site

By Barry R. Shapiro

(Reprinted with permission of the New Marlborough 5 Village News)

New Marlborough is about to get some new neighbors. Dr. David Baum, the owner of the John Dewey Academy, currently located at the imposing Searles Castle in Great Barrington, has announced that the Academy will be moving this summer to the Cassilis Farm property on Route 57
in New Marlborough.

“We hope to be all moved in by July 31,” said Dr. Baum. “We are very excited about this move and to become part of the New Marlborough community.”

Founded in 1985 and located at Searles Castle since its inception, John Dewey Academy (named in honor of the influential American educator) is a residential, year-round college-preparatory high school. Its mission, according to its website, “is to empower bright but underachieving adolescents to overcome social, emotional, and academic challenges in order to attend quality college and lead healthy, productive, and successful lives.” Its entering students exhibit a range of problems, from depression and anxiety to eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal gestures and attempts.

Cassilis Farm sits quietly, awaiting the next chapter in its history.

What unites them is their failure to respond to such traditional psychotropic remedies as outpatient therapy and psychotropic drugs. John Dewey Academy uses none of these. Its approach relies on providing a structured environment to help students gain control of their lives. It attributes its success to its small size, a rigorous while individualized curriculum, and its ability to get students to take on responsibilities and develop leadership skills. It limits admission to those it believes will respond to this more holistic methodology. Test scores and grades are rarely considered.

The academy, fully accredited by the New England Association of Schools, is coeducational with a maximum enrollment of twenty-five students, ages fifteen to twenty- one, typically starting at grade 10, up through college-level and even postgraduate courses. The student-teacher ratio is 3:1 and the student-clinician ratio is 6:1. Class size averages three to four. Remarkably, since 1985, its graduates have had a 100 percent acceptance rate to colleges, including such competitive schools as Columbia, Cornell, Holy Cross, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Wellesley, and Williams. Tuition for the fifty- two-week school year for 2020/21 was $98,000. School districts sometimes reimburse parents for part or all of the tuition, some or all of which may be tax-deductible.

Dr. Baum, 66, earned a Ph.D in renaissance history at Yale and has taught at New York University, Skidmore College, Union College, and, most recently, Bard College at Simon’s Rock. He joined Dewey Academy in 2015 as Dean of Students and was subsequently promoted to Head of School. Unable to keep students on campus because of the Covid pandemic, the school closed last March and was sold to Dr. Baum in May.
The purchase did not include the Searles Castle property. The Bratter family is expected to seek a buyer for it in the future who can maximize its potential. “It really is a fabulous property and includes fifty acres right in downtown Great Barrington,” said Baum.

Reopening the school in the time of Covid was a challenge. “I believe we were the first residential school in New England to bring its students back,” said Dr. Baum. “We worked very closely with Community Health Partners in Great Barrington to figuratively ‘bubble wrap’ the building, and to perform all of the testing and protocol necessary to preserve a safe environment for our students and staff. We’ve quarantined everyone and, happily, we’ve not had one case.”

Knowing that he wanted to find a permanent home for the Academy and knowing that the Blatter family in- tended to sell Searles Castle, Dr. Baum began a property search in earnest. “We needed a place that could accom- modate our residential, classroom, and office needs, and that is both special and has curb appeal so that parents would want to send their children there and which would provide a wonderful home for them. We looked at other places, but Cassilis Farm is just what we needed.”

The farm was listed for sale at $2,195,000 in May 2018. The listing described Cassilis as a 10,000 square foot, historic property, offering, “an enticing combination of elegant architectural details, a beautiful landscape with views, and the opportunity to add your own vision and style to make it your own. The property includes two homes, connected by a porte cochére, for a total of nine bedrooms and six-and-a-half baths. Mechanicals are updated. Historic horse and cow barns, an antique icehouse, and a garden house add to the appeal of this unique eighteen-acre Berkshire estate.” The Academy closed on its purchase on November 2, acquiring the main property and two small houses, for a purchase price of $1,600,000.

Photographs of the property interior available online belie the rosy description in the real estate listing. Some rooms have peeling wallpaper, missing plaster, cracked walls, and bathroom fixtures that have seen better days. There are also many large rooms which cry out for renovation and modernization. Dr. Baum is nonetheless enthusiastic about the project.
“It needs updating but no major structural work. Sprinklers wi be installed, the bathrooms updated, and handicapped access provided. It will ultimately have seven bedrooms, which will each typically house three or more students. I think it will turn out great, and I’m really optimistic that we can be in by the end of July. Our goal is eventually to convert the main house to student residences, offices and classrooms, the smaller houses to staff housing, the horse barn to science labs and indoor recreation space, with the remaining buildings razed to create additional grounds.”

Financing for the acquisition and renovations is coming from private investors along with a capital campaign focused on the Academy’s parent and alumni community. Dr. Baum has converted the Academy’s status from a business corporation to a charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3), meaning that it can now raise tax deductible contributions from donors to help achieve its mission. The impact of the Academy’s newly obtained tax-exempt status upon the Town’s property tax income is not known at this time.

The Academy employs twenty-one full and part-time employees, some of whom, Dr. Baum noted, may be looking for residences in town once the Academy relocates. He also notes that, while much of the maintenance on the property is performed by the students, he will look to local businesses for the skilled trades which the students do not handle.

Dr. Baum is excited about this entire project and relocating the Academy to New Marlborough. “We will miss downtown Great Barrington and access to the Mahaiwe and Triplex along with the stores and coffee shops which our students used, but we won’t miss the noise. We’re very excited about the property and becoming a part of the community. I think our students will welcome some of the volunteer opportunities which I understand are available and, while I now live in Pittsfield, I’m certainly open to relocating to New Marlborough.”

“I’m proud of our students, adds Dr. Baum. “They are all good kids who have made a few poor choices and I’m confident that they will do well here.”