The scene at Monday’s all-school gathering of Pear Tree Point School, on the surface, seemed like any other happy end of the year school celebration. The students, ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth grade, performed the musical “Mighty Minds!,” wearing brightly colored t-shirts and superhero capes, while their parents snapped photos.
But this was not just any celebration: On Tuesday, June 12, after announcing last fall that it could no longer sustain itself financially, the school closed its doors for good.
“I think people were sad,” Bridget Barket, co-chair of the Parent-Faculty Organization, said. “I had a friend who, when we walked into the performance, was in tears — and I said ‘no, don’t think of it like that.’ I think people are genuinely sad because it was such a special place.”
Founded in 1996 by Ralph Parks, a former investment banker, Pear Tree Point School educated over 1,300 children in its 22-year run. The only private elementary school in Darien, Pear Tree took over Plumfield School, which had been located on Long Neck Point since the 1930s.
“We found out that during World War II they had boarding students that lived in the attic,” David Trigaux, Pear Tree’s longtime headmaster, said. “They have come back to visit — they are 80 to 90 years old, and their parents were in the war effort, mainly as diplomats. It’s very nostalgic: They climb the narrow stairs and look out the window, and you can tell they are just reliving memories of the place.”
After acquiring Plumfield, Parks hired Hazel Hobbs, a well-respected local educator, to run the school as its first head; Hobbs hired Trigaux, who she knew from working in the Greenwich Public Schools, three years later, in 1999. The school adopted the prestigious “core knowledge curriculum,” joining a network of around 1,000 schools in the United States that follows a rigorous, sequential curriculum by grade. It also featured the “core virtues” program, emphasizing character traits such as hope and heroism. The school distinguished itself by offering small, individualized classes and a dedicated teaching staff, all of whom had been with the school for over a decade. “Our most recent hire is our second grade teacher, and she’s been here 11 years,” Trigaux said.
“It was an unparalleled education for an elementary school,” Barket, whose five children all attended the school, said. “The teaching staff, curriculum and David’s leadership all jelled to make something very unique, and I think it will be irreplaceable.”
At its peak in 2004-05, Pear Tree enrolled over 200 students; this year, after a several-year decline, enrollment hit an all-time low of 68. In order for the school to remain financially viable, Trigaux said, they needed around 120 students. He cited the economic crisis of 2008 as creating an environment that affected not only the attractiveness of private education, but birth rates as well. Several local private schools, including the Beacon School in Stamford, have also closed.
“Having been doing this a long time, this period reminds me of when I was an educator in the 1970s,” Trigaux said. He noted the consolidation of financial services in Stamford as one factor, as well as the recall of many British families who worked in the area following the recession.
“We used to have 20 British families a year,” he said. “And then after ’08-’09, the families that were here were pulled back immediately, there was no finishing the school year, it was ‘boom, you’re gone.’”
With the close of Pear Tree, Darien will no longer have a private school option, making it unique among its peer towns. “I think it was an alternative, I think it’s just healthy,” Trigaux said. “Not every school is right for every child. Having been in the public schools for a lot of my career, I’m a big fan and advocate of the public schools, but I think if you are a parent in town it’s just nice to have a choice.”
Darien resident and Pear Tree parent Laura Logan, co-chairman of the Parent-Faculty Organization with Barket, said the closing of Pear Tree is a loss for the town. Approximately 70% of Pear Tree students were Darien residents.
“It’s really going to be a void,” she said, noting that parents who want a private elementary education will now need to send their children to neighboring towns. “It’s a shame to have so many children go outside the community because that’s what I loved about Pear Tree: You go to a different school but you’re still in the community and feel a part of it.”
For many parents, Trigaux’s influence on their children will be what they miss the most. “It’s like a family,” Barket said. “David is so unique and special. He has this ability to laser focus like you are the only family in the school, when you know he is juggling 1,000 things.”
Back at the all-school celebration, the children concluded the presentation by walking through “the arch,” a plywood board painted to resemble a grey stonewall, with a doorway in the middle. Traditionally, Trigaux said, the arch ceremony was reserved for graduates. Today, however, every student would walk through the arch marking the end of Pear Tree Point School. “When you come through the arch you are changed,” he said to the gathered students and parents. “You are a different person from when you were on the other side.”
After the children walked through, Trigaux called up teachers and staff to step through the arch as well.
One of the last to walk through was Trigaux himself.
“It’s been a joyous and remarkable experience and we’re happy that we’ve been able to serve so many children and families,” he had said earlier, reflecting on the closing. “We thank Darien for the support and the opportunity to be here.”
“It’s been a wonderful experience.”