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Enrollment on the wane, Carlbrook School will close

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
The historic "Rock House" and the campus at Carlbrook School / December 10, 2015
Carlbrook School, a private therapeutic boarding school that opened in Halifax County in 2002 and attracted high school students from all over the U.S. and the world, is closing.

The academic side of the operation will cease to exist after the end of the semester this Friday, which normally would lead into Carlbrook’s holiday break.

Students and staff were told of the impending closure on Wednesday, said Brandy Epps, who has worked there for 12 years, currently in the student life department. She described Carlbrook as a great place to work and said employees were “shocked” by the announcement. She said a skeleton crew of workers will remain at the campus through Sunday.

The school has notified its accreditation authority of steps that it will be taking to prepare and record academic transcripts so students can make plans for transferring to new schools to finish out their year.

Melissa Peacock of South Boston, who was recently named Dean of Academics at Carlbrook after a group of upper-level employees was let go in a cost-cutting move, referred media inquiries to Justin Merritt, one of Carlbrook’s founders who is listed on the website as director of college counseling. Merritt was not immediately available for comment.

Along with providing a traditional high-end education for college-bound students, Carlbrook operated as a recovery school — with a strong focus on mental health services, counseling and drug addiction treatment. It prided itself on turning around the lives of troubled youths and helping to heal broken families.

“It took a lot of staff to run a school like that,” said Andy Coe, who was Dean of Students at Carlbrook and an original member of the school’s leadership before being let go by new management in September 2015. “The margins were never great, and that was never the motivation for doing it.”

Carlbrook is located on 220 acres in a remote part of western Halifax County, near Vernon Hill. It takes its name from the historic rock-walled mansion that was the early 20th century home of tobacco magnate Edgar Carlton, who oversaw the American operations for the Imperial Tobacco Co. of Great Britain and Ireland Ltd. The “Rock House,” built around 1928, is a state and national historic landmark.

In early 2002, Carlbrook gained a new identity as a therapeutic boarding school, attracting an enrollment of some 130 students whose families could afford the five-figure tuition. Although the stately campus is relatively isolated, Carlbrook employees and students made many contributions to the community, taking part of activities that ranged from AYSO Soccer to Little Theatre productions to poetry readings at downtown South Boston restaurants.

Earlier this year, the school introduced an equine program, and in the spring students enjoyed an off-campus excursion to go skydiving.

But Carlbrook also has struggled for years to cope with declining enrollment, which Coe attributes largely to the lingering impact of the recession in the late 2000s.

The drop in enrollment “probably started with the economic downturn six or seven years ago. There are fewer families that can afford it, probably.”

After the layoffs in September, Carlbrook got a new headmaster, Dr. Karen Fitzhugh, who spelled out some of the challenges facing the school in an October report to AdvancEd, the accreditation body and successor to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

In an executive summary dated October 20, 2015, Fitzhugh wrote that “[t]he past three years have precipitated extraordinary difficulties for families to afford boarding schools of any type.” She also noted that traditional boarding schools have “moved towards delivery of enhanced clinical and/or therapeutic services, thereby diverting what had been the typical Carlbrook student. As a result, our Census has declined.”

In the report to the accreditation group, Fitzhugh pegged enrollment at a low of 50 students, less than half the number of prior years. Coe and Epps each said the fall enrollment was around 40 students.

Noting the impact of the economic downturn since 2008, Fitzhugh pointed out in the summary report that Carlbrook nevertheless was able to complete two major capital projects in recent years: the 2010 construction of permanent dormitory buildings for girls, followed by new dorms for boys in 2012.

Of Carlbrook’s track record, she wrote: “We get to witness breathtakingly positive reversals of fortune for students, and the reconstitution of effectively communicating families. Students who had mistakenly but firmly believed that they had irretrievably compromised their prospects for college are able to discover and make their way through a rebuilding process that restores hope.

“This is a loving, supportive, respectful community of adult and adolescent learners of whom it may be said: not for school but for life we learn.”

Kathleen Smith, director of the Virginia program for Advanc-Ed, the accreditation group, said Thursday that she has been in contact with Carlbrook staff about the record-keeping requirements that are in place to smooth the transition of students to new schools: “The most important thing are the transcripts because you can’t transfer to a new school without them.” Smith said she received word of the closing not long after Carlbrook completed the final requirements for renewing its accreditation status for five years.

Since its founding in 2002, Carlbrook has been accredited by Georgia-based Advanc-Ed and predecessor SACS, and Smith said the school would have been recommended for accreditation renewal based on the strength of its academic program, resources, governance and leadership. She said she visited Carlbrook once and was deeply impressed by the beauty of the campus.

“The accreditation was not the reason they are closing, that’s for sure,” she said.

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"#13 If you have no debt and you also have ten dollars in your pocket, that gives you a greater net worth than about 25 percent of all Americans."

All while Republicans control both houses of congress.


The reason for their decline is likely none-other than the internet. Now any intelligent and concerned parent can simply google Carlbrook and hear reports of all that's wrong with it. Google barely existed in 2002. Whenever enrollment started to decline is likely in direct relation when everyone got hip to the internet after Apple released its first smart phone (the "iPhone") in 2007. After that, parents couldn't hide from the truth anymore. Everyone was forced to google what they didn't know. Anyway, google "Carlbrook"--the search results are littered with scary reports of misguided and dangerous therapeutic approaches they are enacting.


There were many problems with that school/program--the biggest of which being that they present to unkowning parents as a traditional academic-oriented school (i.e. their sales pitch to parents leads with: "to help students of high aptitude narrow the gap between their scholastic potential and actual academic performance"), with therapy as a side dish. But the reality is the "therapy" is the main course, and an extremely controversial one at that. So what happens is parents send their kids to this program without the slightest clue of what they are getting their kids into. For that alone Carlbrook deserves to be shut down.

I got a lot to say (as someone who attended Carlbrook), and very little time, but here's a comment I just left to a fellow Carlbrook attendee in response to this occurrence which will give anyone wondering a better idea of what was wrong with Carlbrook:


the comment is too long for this comment wall. View the comments on this similar news post to read it:


I mean it doesn't really matter what one of my "sources" are. They aren't going to come right out and say the truth--they are likely all in denial of it, and unless they took the time to do a focus group and collect proper statistics along the way they aren't going to know for sure what caused the decline in enrollment. Which means my guess is literally as good as theirs, and likely better since they are prone to denial. In addition, blaming it on "the economy" is always a cop out. Come on now. These guys were too arrogant to realize that perhaps they were doing something wrong.


Carlbrook did not reveal their methods of "therapy" to parents. By not categorizing themselves as a Therapeutic Boarding School they avoided the scrutiny by medical review agencies. If their methods were used in any medical setting they would have been shut down. Kids were forced to sit in a room from waking to bedtime, looking forward, doing nothing as "suspension", which often had nothing to do with behavior. CONT


I find these comments pathetic as a parent of a former Carlbrook student. To be brief, Carlbrook is clearly a therapeutic boarding school and is represented to parents as such. They presented a perfect solution for students who needed psychological help while providing a solid academic education as well which most therapeutic schools do not. Nothing was EVER misrepresented to us and the description above of suspension is ridiculous. Carlbrook saved our daughter & family. It may not work for everyone but to listen to disgruntled kids who were troubled before they got there seems ludicrous to me. Thank you Carlbrook - the world needs more loving places for our kids. We will miss you.

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