Birchwood Merges with Hawken School


Dear Birchwood Parents and Community,

Since 2005, when Helene and I made the decision with the Birchwood community to make the school a permanent institution beyond our tenure, we faced three major challenges: 1) how might we sustain the mission, 2) what is our plan for leadership succession, and 3) how do we create a sustainable business model.

While we have made excellent progress toward all three objectives, we have come upon an extraordinary opportunity to secure the future. After three years of deliberation between Helene and me, and after 18 months of discussions and analysis with our Board of Trustees, we are excited to announce that as of October 10th, we will merge with Hawken School, Cleveland’s largest and most forward-focused, independent school.

This merger will strengthen our financial future and secure Birchwood’s mission and succession plan. Hawken is an ideal partner to grow the Birchwood School that our families and community value. Both schools are leaders in education, and joining forces will allow us to amplify our expertise and deepen our impact.

What does this mean for the Birchwood community and Birchwood families? From the perspective of a current Birchwood family, nothing essentially changes. Our mission, our programs, our teachers, our administrative staff remain the same. This continuation was at the heart of our negotiations with Hawken. From the perspective of the Board of Directors including Helene and me, we gain long-term financial security, administrative muscle to reach our enrollment, resources to expand our academic programming, and expertise to reach our fundraising goals. Furthermore, we gain an intellectual partner to enrich our academic programming. In a nutshell: It’s the same Birchwood, just better and stronger!

  • Helene and I will remain in leadership until our retirement and our plans for succession will remain.
  • The Birchwood tuition scale will remain the same.
  • The Birchwood Model – our approach to academics, character development and all of our other programs and efforts that support our culture and make Birchwood unique and successful – will remain the same.
  • We will gain an intellectual partner with whom we will be able to make even greater improvements to our academic and character programs and increase our professional development opportunities and resources for our faculty.
  • We will take the name Birchwood School of Hawken, and all Birchwood students will become members of the Hawken community, which means that, upon successfully graduating eighth grade, students will automatically have the opportunity to join Hawken’s Upper School in Gates Mills, starting with the class of 2017.
  • Our location will remain the same but we will also gain access to Hawken’s campus in University Circle.
  • We will gain support from Hawken’s professional administration team that will strengthen our administration work and our marketing efforts. This will better enable us to invest our intellectual capital (gained during the past 30 years) in order to benefit more children and their families with a Birchwood education.

This is, in all senses, an extremely advantageous arrangement that will strengthen our school, provide Helene and me with the opportunity to do the things we do best, sustain our identity in perpetuity, and secure our future as a community school accessible to families interested in our educational approach.

This is not a decision that was made hastily. Over the 18 months, we have worked closely with Hawken’s Head of School, Scott Looney, Board Chair, Charlie Cooley, and members of Hawken’s Board of Trustees and administration to ensure that our missions and values align. Hawken is a natural partner as it possesses a mission that mirrors ours. Helene and I sent two of our daughters and son to Hawken School for high school precisely because we felt Hawken offered a continuation of our values set in a broader and grander scale.

Birchwood families understand and value our deep commitment to the highest standards of academics, careful attention to character building, and our culture of achievement built upon compassion and care for each child. Hawken families embrace their school’s mission of forward-focused preparation for the real world through the development of character and intellect. We know each other well, we respect each other’s work, and we believe we are embarking on a strong, long-lasting partnership that will serve both institutions well.

Our confidence in this decision is bolstered by the administrative agreement that we’ve designed with Hawken. As announced last spring, Helene and I will remain in charge of this campus for at least five to ten years, continuing to implement the curriculum and approach that we’ve built with our faculty over the past 32 plus years. Once we retire, Dr. Christine Debelak Neider, who is a graduate of both Birchwood and Hawken Schools and currently holds the position of Director of Early Childhood Education at Birchwood and Assistant Head of School, will take over as the director of this campus, a plan determined by and approved by the Birchwood Board of Trustees. Certainly Birchwood’s future leadership is in good hands.

Affordability of independent schools is a high priority at Hawken, and they are committed to keeping the Birchwood Campus affordable for our families. Tuition at the Birchwood Campus will remain in line with what it is today. Once students move on to the Upper School, Hawken is committed to supporting families who qualify for tuition assistance. Hawken has the largest tuition assistance budget of all the independent schools in Northeast Ohio.

For Hawken, a school that has welcomed many Birchwood graduates to their upper school, this arrangement is part of a larger strategy to build more access for Cleveland and west side students to join their community, opening the door for more families of diverse socio-economic backgrounds to one of the best educations in America. For us, this decision is a celebration and acknowledgement of all we’ve built and an assurance that Birchwood School will endure.

We recognize that there will be questions and concerns not addressed in this letter. We plan to accommodate extensive communication until everyone in our community is as excited about this opportunity as we are. Please see the calendar of communication events.

With gratitude for your continued support of Birchwood School,

Chuck and Helene Debelak

Scott Looney and Charles Debelak sign meger dcoument

Scott Looney, Hawken Head of School, and Charles Debelak, Birchwood Head of School, sign the legal documents establishing the merger of Birchwood School with Hawken School at the desk of Hawken Founder, James A. Hawken.