Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Map of Henderson International School
1165 Sandy Ridge Avenue, Henderson
Next week, Seth Ahlborn starts the school year facing a daunting challenge.
Ahlborn, the new headmaster of Henderson International School, is taking the helm of a private school that — like many others across the country — has struggled in the recession.
Amid record-high foreclosures and unemployment, even affluent Las Vegas families struggled to make tuition payments, the lifeblood of private schools. Despite offering financial aid and holding down tuition costs — which range from about $12,000 to $17,000 a year — Henderson International saw its enrollment plummet and its budget dwindle.
Three years ago, the school — operated by Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Meritas LLC — closed two of its three campuses in the valley and eliminated its high school program. It was a “very tough decision,” former headmaster Brian Siegel said in a statement at the time.
Now, as the Las Vegas economy begins to show signs of a rebound, Ahlborn has high hopes for Henderson International’s renaissance. The school is at capacity in preschool and fifth grade, and it added an extra section in the sixth-grade class to accommodate additional students, he said.
With Henderson International’s enrollment starting to climb again, Ahlborn is looking to rebuild the private school, which now serves preschool to eighth-grade students.
“My goal here is to raise the bar,” he said. “I’m looking at the start of the school year as a fresh start. Now is the time to set the strategic vision. There’s an extraordinary opportunity here.”
Ahlborn, 54, comes to the Henderson school with 22 years of experience as the dean and principal of several East Coast boarding and private schools.
The former Olympic rowing hopeful parlayed his budding athletic career — which was derailed by a back injury — into teaching math, science and computer applications to boarding students. Since his move to Henderson last month, the New Hampshire native said he hoped to instill a sense of Olympian discipline into the 430-student Henderson International.
Ahlborn recalls teaching remedial algebra to seniors at a New Hampshire boarding school. After a particularly rowdy class session, the then-fledgling math teacher took away all the students’ desks, forcing students to work on the floor. Students had to earn their desks back through good behavior and improved math skills, he said.
“It was a real insult to these privileged kids,” Ahlborn said, adding the students behaved after his exercise.
At Henderson International, Ahlborn said he planned to expand the curriculum — especially in math — and to introduce new technology to help teachers better engage their students.
The majority of the classrooms have “smartboards,” digital version of chalkboards with projectors that allow teachers to present slideshows and manipulate objects on a screen. Ahlborn said he envisioned a campus with iPads for every student, similar to a local charter school that recently adopted the Apple tablet computer technology in the classroom. The tablet would allow students to access cheaper digital textbooks and online resources to enhance their learning, Ahlborn said.
“That’s what I’m known for: going in and seeing how we can use technology to make teaching better,” Ahlborn said, recalling overhauling a private school with new technology and convincing teachers to adopt it. “My focus is on making sure kids use the technology, not just so teachers have a fancy chalkboard.”
The Meritas way of teaching will still prevail, Ahlborn said.
Every student will still have a “personalized learning plan” that will be consulted at every student-teacher-parent conference. Instruction will begin at a young age — from Spanish for preschoolers to mandatory violin instruction through third grade. The Henderson school will collaborate with Meritas’ nine other campuses in countries like China, Mexico and Switzerland. Finally, teachers won’t be “sages on the stage” but facilitators of student-driven instruction in smaller classes, he said.
“The imprimatur of Meritas is students first,” Ahlborn said. “How is what we do going to affect our students? It’s about the kids, not about the adults.”
Ahlborn — whose wife is the new director of annual giving at the UNLV Foundation — said he hoped to team with local businesses and the school’s Parent Teacher Association to enhance the education at Henderson International. In the past year, the PTA purchased new sport courts and theater stage lights, Ahlborn said.
With these changes and teamwork with the local community, Ahlborn said he hoped to attract more students to the private school.
Ahlborn’s mission might be helped by the budget turmoil surrounding the Clark County School District, which shed more than 1,000 teaching positions this summer to bridge a $64 million budget deficit. Even though the CCSD rehired 419 teachers who were laid off, the district still shed 1,015 teaching positions. The district was able to rehire laid off teachers through higher-than-expected retirements and resignations.
“People really want a good education for their kids, and they’re willing to stretch to make it happen,” Ahlborn said. “I feel personally that the recent (teacher) turnover in CCSD will provide some opportunity for parents to reflect on the experience they’re having.”
Despite being at capacity in some grade levels, Henderson International is looking to grow — especially in the elementary grades, Ahlborn said.
To that end, Henderson International renovated its front office to reflect its new enrollment goals, replacing the former headmaster’s spacious office suite with the admissions office and moving Ahlborn’s smaller office to the rear.
The school is also planning an October open house, and interested families can schedule group and private tours of the facilities at 1165 Sandy Ridge Ave.
“Private schools are like a big family of families,” Ahlborn said. “It’s important for us to welcome everyone to the table.”