When the Ross School Offered to Spend $100 Million and Double Its Size

The Ross School's main building in East Hampton
Photo: Courtesy The Ross School

At the present time, the internationally known private prep school, the Ross School, operates out of two campuses, one in East Hampton and the other in Bridgehampton. The Bridgehampton campus, called the Lower School, is for younger children in grades pre-K to 6 and consists of about 40 students on a relatively small campus on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton comprising 8.3 acres. The Upper School, which is for grades 7–12, has a student body of about 320 students from dozens of countries around the world, many boarding here, and operates on a grand 63-acre campus on Goodfriend Drive in East Hampton.

Beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, the Lower School will move its student body to the campus of the Upper School, so all students will be taught on one campus rather than two, which are six miles apart.

There are good reasons to do this. The main one is that it will allow the younger kids ages 4 to 11 to intermingle with the older kids as well as the teachers, guest lecturers and administration in the full context of the school. Another, is that it will provide the Lower School with a much wider range of activities on the 63-acre campus in East Hampton. And finally, it will become more intimate and cost-effective and offer better communications and transportation than what is currently in place.

One wonders why the Ross School decided to have a separate campus for the younger kids in Bridgehampton in the first place. And the answers are interesting.

The Ross School was founded in 1991 by Courtney and Steven J. Ross. Steven Ross, in those years, was the legendary and very wealthy businessman who merged Time and Warner in the late 1980s. He and Courtney had one daughter, Nicole, who went to the Manhattan school Spence up through third grade. At that time, though, as Courtney had her own ideas on education, they took her out of Spence and began taking her on international travels with a tutor to give her a broad, intellectual and interesting education. When several other Manhattan parents asked if their little children could join these expeditions, the answer was yes. And from there grew up a school for these very privileged kids.

Steve Ross died in 1992, and Courtney decided to make it her life’s work to bring this well-rounded sort of education to a wider circle of students. In the early 1990s, Courtney bought 63 acres of woods that included a commercial loop road called Goodfriend Park and began the Ross School there. At first it was just in one building and was for girls grade 5–8. In 1997 they began to teach boys there, too.

The curriculum is unusual. Called a spiral curriculum, it is taught in eight intellectual categories that weave world cultural history, world language and literature, science, math, visual arts, performing arts, media studies and technology and wellness through all the grades. The idea is that civilization on this planet consists of a wide range of cultures and customs, living both separately or together, over time. Ross students would be presented with it all, slowly at first, but then in more of its cultural complexity as their years at Ross went on. They would also be encouraged to interact with the world as early as possible. It would be an exciting educational experience in an inspirational setting.

Today the school has nearly a dozen buildings with nearly a quarter-million square feet of space nestled in the woods of this 63-acre campus. It is widely respected in the world of education and attracts a student body from more than 20 countries around the world. Since 2001, the Ross School has graduated students and sent them off to some of the finest colleges in the world.

Then there was this: In 2000, when Courtney was backing the school almost entirely with her own funds, she announced a plan to expand her project by spending an additional $100 million to more than double it in size. There was an additional 130 acres of woods adjoining the Goodfriend property for sale, and Ross’s plan was to buy it and grow the student body to nearly 500 and have a faculty and administration team of similar size.

At this size and strength, the Ross School would become one of the most prestigious private preparatory schools in the country and have a major impact on education in America. Courtney Ross obtained the property, drew up plans to show new sports fields, classrooms, an elementary school building, two performance centers, several ecology labs and more. All together, there would be many more buildings on the property, and with that she proceeded to make an application, together with an environmental impact statement, to East Hampton Town to make this dream come true.

I thought this was a wonderful idea. East Hampton would not only be a fishing, farming, tourist and summer community, but also a pre-college town with a prestigious private school that could rival one such as Choate in Wallingford, Connecticut. Choate has 855 students on 458 acres in more than 100 buildings, many of which are dormitories.

Because our current community is largely commercially active in the summertime as a resort and second-home destination, such a school, which either shuts down or reduces its offerings in the summer, would create a year-round commercial employment situation. Also this would provide a new cultural atmosphere to this place. With its many lectures, performances, debates and shows, the community would benefit from this extraordinary intellectual atmosphere.

The town turned Courtney down. The decision seemed to be decided upon the fact that some endangered hoot owls spent time in this woods on their way migrating from their winter quarters to their summer quarters. There were also issues brought up about its proximity to East Hampton Airport, about its effect on amphibians, birds and deer. Also, water quality. And so, it was not to be. Courtney Ross abandoned her plans for the additional 130 acres. And in 2006, Ross bought a small 8-acre private elementary school campus in Bridgehampton that had been founded around 1970 as the Hampton Day School.

So that’s the story. Time has passed. Courtney Ross still actively oversees the school, but has passed the baton of running it to a new day-to-day leadership team that includes Bill O’Hearn, Jeanette Tyndall and Andi O’Hearn. The Ross experience has grown nevertheless. And it is, honestly, a pleasure to have such an educational institution—though maybe not as big as hoped—in our midst.

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