Desert Academy Closes

Administrators say low enrollment led them to 'suspend regular academic operations' at the private school

Santa Fe businesses in every sector are feeling the economic strain of COVID-19, and schools are not immune.

Desert Academy, a private middle and high school that opened in 1994, announced Tuesday it would "suspend regular academic operations"  for the school year set to start in August.

The school's board of trustees voted on the plan Monday after administrators confirmed only 63 students planned to return to the school in grades 6 through 12 for the fall semester, cutting the school's enrollment by about half, according to a news release.

The drop served a final blow to an institution that was already on shaky ground after a lawsuit over missed mortgage payments, budget cuts and a change in leadership earlier this spring.

Administrators discovered the drop in enrollment as they planned for new social distancing requirements for the fall semester, the release explained. Normally, enrollment would not be determined until just weeks before the start of fall classes.

Desert Academy Board of Trustees Chair Trudy Moon said the board concluded continuing operation of the school at such low enrollment was not a financially viable option.

"Last year, our board raised nearly $800,000 and even with an enrollment about twice what we are facing, we barely avoided foreclosure and finished the school year just a few dollars in the black," Moon's statement read, "so to take on a much larger fundraising challenge in an economy as uncertain as this one would put students and faculty at risk of a mid-year collapse. The Board was not willing to create that risk."

In April, former Head of School Yann Lussiez announced he would step down. At the time, the school faced budget cuts of at least 30% due to the pandemic and a lawsuit over the school's inability to make agreed payments on the property housing the Desert Academy Campus off of the Old Santa Fe Trail.

Desert Academy bought the property, which previously served as the campus for the New Mexico Academy for Science and Mathematics, in 2012. Desert Academy had planned to relocate the school to a former Santa Fe Public Schools building on Camino Entrada for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Pat Preib, the newly appointed head of school who succeeded Lussiez in the spring, tells SFR the lawsuit influenced the academy's decision to move its campus but did not play a role in the decision to close the school. She says the closure was the result of circumstances caused by COVID-19.

Desert Academy, she says, is working on a socially distanced program for this year's incoming seniors to complete their diplomas at the new campus. The school is working with parents of all other students to place them in other schools before the beginning of the year.

Prieb tells SFR students and faculty are "absolutely devastated," yet also expresses her gratitude to the community for rallying to keep the school open in the face of its previous trials.

Desert Academy's graduation requirements are based on the International Baccalaureate degree program and are different than other schools, making it  difficult for the seniors to transfer in their last year.

2015 graduate Chiara Brandi says the program was one of the best things about the school.

"I think that with the International Baccalaureate program the school provided something unique to the community that just wasn't available anywhere else, and it's sad to see that go," she says, adding that the program prepared her to excel in college by teaching "attention to critical thinking and the ability to go beyond just memorizing facts."

Brandi graduated from Bennington College in Vermont and now lives in Santa Fe and works an artist and photographer.

The news that Desert Academy was closing didn't come as a complete surprise to Brandi, as she's been aware of Desert Academy's financial struggle and high teacher turnover for several years.

"When a school goes through so many transitions its bound to struggle," she says. "When COVID-19 hit, I knew that Desert would be one of the first to feel it."

However, Preib says this might not be the end for the small independent school.

"Yes, I expect that we could do the research and do some exploration and come up with a right sized model of a school that could definitely open. When, I don't know, and what that would depend on, I don't know but it's not off the table," she says.

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