On Former Green Mountain College Campus, Danhee Bhakta Planning For New Private School
When Raj Bhakta, the founder of WhistlePig Whisky, bought the campus of the former Green Mountain College in Poultney last year, he announced vague plans to create a school that would combine hands-on learning with his new brandy making operation.
While he’s pushing ahead with his spirits business, it’s Bhakta’s wife Danhee who’s spearheading efforts to open a school on the former college campus, something locals are watching closely.
When Green Mountain College closed in 2019, it was one of many small private colleges that couldn’t balance rising costs with dwindling enrollment.
For the town, where the college had been an economic engine for more than a century, it was a gut punch.
Patty McWilliams, owner of Hermit Hill Books, echoed what many locals are feeling: "I really want to see something happen down there that’s positive for the whole town."
Poultney’s Main Street, where McWilliams' business is located, leads right into the stately 155-acre campus.
Danhee Bhakta and her husband Raj have set up offices in the building that used to house the college dining hall and student center.
“I’ll show you the Buttery," she said as she gave a brief tour. "We actually just converted it into a little bit of a recreational-entertainment space."
The Buttery was the name of the college café, and was a popular student hangout. Now the room has a more refined look, with tasteful couches, a pool table and even a chef.
Bhakta says she and her husband will use the area as an entertainment space for Bhakta Spirits, the brandy business the couple founded last July.
“Because our vision for the Bhakta Spirits is to bring people from the markets where we distribute to just kind of come and see, meet the brand, meet the people behind the brand,” she said.
But the 37-year old is also working on another entrepreneurial vision, one that she says evolved from home-schooling her children on campus.
The Bhaktas have four kids who range in age from 2 to 8-and-a-half, and Danhee Bhakta says the isolation of the pandemic gave her a lot of time to think about their education.
"And what I discovered, and what I realized, as a mom, maybe not as a teacher, but as a mom, at least, is that it's not necessarily like the ABCs, and the 123s, that's most important," she said. "What's more important is that they learn to become individuals full of character and drive.”
Danhee Bhakta grew up in Seoul, South Korea and moved to Canada when she was 12. She’s not an educator, she studied biology and business as an undergraduate and got her master's degree in biotechnology at Columbia. She says that's where she met her husband Raj.
After the Bhaktas moved to Poultney last October, they hired a Castleton woman named April Wolk to teach their kids. Wolk (no relation to former Castleton University President Dave Wolk) helped launch Roots and Wings Academy, an independent school in nearby West Haven that operated for nearly a decade before closing last year because of the pandemic.
Danhee Bhakta says she was impressed by Wolk’s hands-on approach to teaching, and with all the amenities of the campus, like the auditorium, art studios, green space and farm, it got Bhakta thinking that other parents might like the experience for their kids.
“So I wanted to really look into creating a school that is about character development,” Bhakta said.
She says her new Green Mountain Community School will enroll children from kindergarten through sixth grade. Wolk was hired as lead teacher, and Bhakta’s plans include three more classroom instructors, plus someone to direct the school’s project-based learning curriculum.
The school’s multi-age classrooms will be located in Pollock Hall, the building that used to house the college president’s office near the campus entrance.
But Bhakta says each school day will begin with a flexible drop-off period at the barn.
“Because I want kids to come in and get their fingers dirty, and take care of the animals, and tend to the garden, and work off their early morning energy outside," she said.
According to the Vermont Agency of Education Bhakta's school has begun the process required to become a recognized independent school, a designation that means it cannot accept tax dollars.
Bhakta says annual tuition will cost between $10,000 and $12,000, depending on how many students are enrolled, and she says she and her husband hope to create scholarships.
So far, April Wolk said they've sent 24 applications to parents that have reached out, and 12 families are actively involved in the admissions and enrollment process.
Bhakta hopes to have at least 20 to 25 students enrolled by the time the school opens after Labor Day.
At the local Shaw's supermarket, Jessica Kaptur was rushing to pick up her 7-year-old daughter, and said she’s excited to have more options for her.
“Because there aren’t very many schools like that around,"Kaptur said. "I would like to work there, I would like my child to go there, and I’m looking into it.”
But local resident Mary Jane Stoneberg's feelings are more mixed. She has three grandchildren who she says will be entering Poultney Elementary School. She worries that a new private school may hurt enrollment there and negatively impact state school funding the town receives.
Staff members at the public elementary say their enrollment has remained fairly stable in recent years at around 215 students. But next year, they expect a significant jump to 227 students.
The independent LiHigh School already exists in Poultney. It serves students between the ages of 11 to 22. According to the school's website, it was founded in 2006 and now has nearly 30 students and more than a dozen staff.
Sarah Pelkey, Poultney’s economic development coordinator, sees the investments the Bhaktas are making as positive for the town.
But she says developments on the former college campus are only part of the story when it comes to Poultney’s future. She says the town is benefiting from an uptick in home sales, recent turnovers in several longtime downtown businesses, and huge growth in outdoor recreation like local mountain biking.
And she says state and federal aid the town received after the college closed helped local officials map out a blueprint for how to best move forward.
Danny Lang directs the REclaimED makerspace in Poultney. The nonprofit provides a place for people to learn how to use tools and work with their hands.
Lang graduated from Green Mountain College in 2015 and says he's been following the Bhaktas' plans closely. He admits some people in town are suspicious of their motives and leery of their celebrity. The couple spent $4.55 million on the campus, and he says that’s raised a lot of questions.
Lang says new no trespassing signs the couple have put up where the campus fronts the Poultney River have also upset some locals who enjoy walking trails in that area.
But he says he’s trying to take a wait-and-see approach, and respects that the campus belongs to the Bhaktas now.
“I do really hope that they are successful there, and that it brings people to the town, and that it’s something that’s good for Poultney," he said.
Danhee Bhakta says she and her husband posted their property along the river because she’d encountered people there who she said were drunk and rude in front of her kids. And she says public access to the river creates problematic liability issues for the family. But the front part of the leafy campus near town, she added, remains accessible.
She says she and her husband see a lot of potential in their new home, but trying to realize it during a pandemic has been daunting.
"I go back and forth: One day, I wake up with so much enthusiasm and excitement, and then at the same time, I will wake up the next day feeling like, 'Oh my gosh, what have we done to ourselves,'” she said.
With 26 buildings and acres of space, she says she just tries to focus on what task needs to get done next.
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