MERGER: When School Lets Out, It’s Over

Amanda Angel | June 8, 2006

Students say goodbye to the Morriss Center and hello to Ross

When Randy transfers to Onward Bound, an alternative private school, she thinks she has left her public school for good. But months after she starts, the school’s administration suddenly announces that it will close. Faced with only one option, Randy must come to terms with returning to the place she thought she had left behind.

Randy is a role that Kayla Mottola, a freshman at the Morriss Center High School in Wainscott, knows well. She has been rehearsing it every day for the school’s upcoming performance of “Onward Bound,” a new play, and it is based on her own experience. Kayla enrolled at the Morriss Center High School last fall after receiving most of her education in the Mattituck public school system.

“When I got here, I thought, this isn’t a school. It didn’t have nine class periods. But I think I learned more here than I ever learned in public school. I didn’t want to go back,” Kayla said.

But after the Morriss Center School, which had been called the Hampton Day Schooluntil recently, announced that it was closing at the end of this academic year, Kayla was confronted with the reality that, like Randy, she would be going back to her old school district in September.

As the academic year winds down, the 182 students in prekindergarten through high school at the Morriss Center are all coping with the closing of the school. This spring, the Morriss Center and the Ross School in East Hampton finalized plans to merge into one prekindergarten-through-high-school institution that will be known as the Ross School.

The Hampton Day School will exist only as the name of the Ross School’s campus for the primary and prekindergarten grades taught at what was the Morriss Center’s lower school on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton. That facility was home to the Hampton Day School from 1969 until 2003, when it became the Morriss Center School.

On Friday, students ran lines for “Onward Bound,” a lightly veiled recounting of the short history of the Morriss Center High School, which opened in 2004. Geoffrey Paul Gordon, the high school’s playwright in residence, wrote the play after observing and interviewing most of the 21 students at the high school. They will perform it tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall.

“I suggested that we do it in October, when we heard what was going to happen. We became desperate to turn lemons into lemonade,” Mr. Gordon said on Friday before rehearsal started.

The students have been encouraged to articulate their feelings, whether on stage or in art at the high school. The students’ final art show, “Each (other), An(other),” opened on Friday. One of the exhibits, by Angela Gay, is composed of two opposing rectangles, each filled with 30 portraits of the same students and faculty.

One, in which all the subjects are scowling, was hung on a wall, and the other, where they are all smiling, was laid on the floor beneath the first, and covered in plastic. It is meant for people to walk on.

“When we make the nice faces, people walk all over us,” said Katie Osiecki, a freshman at the school, explaining the piece.

The Hampton Day School Charitable Trust was founded in 1965 by Tinka Topping. Frustrated by resistance toward alternative teaching programs in East End public schools, Mrs. Topping and friends from the South Fork with similar feelings formed a committee to establish a private school.

In 1966 the school opened with 30 students, seven teachers, and a director, Warren P. Leonard, a headmaster from the Storm King School in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. It was one of the first private schools on Long Island that subscribed to an “unconventional” curriculum.

“It was nothing revolutionary,” Mrs. Topping said yesterday. “We had wider-based age groups, no textbooks, the kids did stimulating projects, there was less homework.”

“We were all so deeply bonded, the faculty and the kids, because we were all rebels,” said Tony Hitchcock, the school’s original science teacher. “It was for kids who felt stifled by the artificial rules and measures of the public school system. They were bursting to escape the mundane and banality.”

The school moved to its Butter Lane campus in 1969. Fund raising was difficult, especially since philanthropists tended to have more conservative leanings than the school, Mrs. Topping said.

“People assumed we were some sort of Communist school,” Mr. Hitchcock joked.

Mr. Hitchcock taught, and was an interim director for six years. Mrs. Topping remained on the school’s board until 1975. She came back to the board in 1991, when the school threatened to close. She left permanently in 1996.

“I don’t have any sentimental feeling toward the school. I’ve been distanced from it for 10 years,” she said. “It’s a nice, normal private school.”

The name of the Hampton Day School was changed in 2003, when Ira Statfeld and Michael Recanati joined the board of trustees and pledged a $5 million donation to the school.

“Many of us felt that the school closed when it became the Morriss Center,” Mr. Hitchcock said.

But the loyalty to the school didn’t end for most of the students who were there during that transition.

At the high school, students are still bitter about a letter that Dick Malone, the interim head of school at the Morriss Center, wrote last fall while rumors swirled about a Ross School-Morriss Center merger, and what it would entail.

“He guaranteed that we would graduate with a Morriss Center diploma,” said Dylan Kraft, a sophomore. Dylan incorporated the letter into her art piece for Friday’s show: a series of three shirts coated with eggshells, on which she projects video footage of students reading Mr. Malone’s letter, acceptance letters from the Ross School and the Morriss Center, and a letter Dylan wrote to The East Hampton Star about the impending merger.

At the Morriss Center’s lower school in Bridgehampton, students are getting ready for the end as well.

“I’m definitely happy with the education I got. But I feel sorry for the seventh graders who thought they were going to graduate from the Morriss Center,” said Fifi Carmichael Sudlun, an eighth grader about to graduate. She will attend the Concord Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, next year.

Many of her schoolmates will be attending the Ross School, which she said was a hard pill to swallow since the Hampton Day School and later the Morriss Center were often considered the alternative to the Ross School.

“There’s always been a competition between Hampton Day and Ross; we play against them in sports. And suddenly we have to go to school on their terms, and wear their uniforms,” she said.

All the students from the Morriss Center were accepted to the Ross School. Mr. Malone said most of the students will transfer to Ross, although some students will attend public schools, and a handful who are old enough will go to boarding schools.

Mr. Malone said that students have collected remembrances of the school in art projects and other assignments during the year. He said that the graduation ceremony on Friday, June 16, will not look back at the history of either the Morriss Center or the Hampton Day School.

“The graduation belongs to the students and we wanted them to be the focus of the ceremony,” he said.

Although graduation will celebrate the accomplishment of the eighth-grade class, it will be a somber occasion for many of the graduates.

“There are going to be a lot of tears,” Fifi said. “The excitement that used to be around the school isn’t there anymore. It’s sad that it all has to end.”