A successful merger between Harbor Schools and Easter Seals of New Hampshire has allowed for the expansion of services offered to young people living at Harbor Schools homes, particularly the developmentally disabled.
The two organizations merged quietly last fall after about six months of discussion and planning, Easter Seals of New Hampshire Chief Operating Officer Christine McMahon said. The move was announced with a small item in a recent Easter Seals newsletter.
"We've been full-fledged since September, and it's going great," McMahon said. "It's a win-win."
There are several Harbor Schools facilities in the Greater Newburyport area, including Amesbury, Merrimac, Newbury and Haverhill. Harbor Schools and Family Services is a residential/education program under the state's Department of Education. Students are referred to placement at Harbor Schools and Family Services and other group homes by the Department of Social Services. The students can range in age from 14 to 21 years old.
Due to a change in how the state Department of Social Services funds placement of children to agencies like Harbor Schools, fewer young people were being referred to Harbor Schools' residential homes. That resulted in one home with room for 12 girls in Merrimac rarely having more than eight residents. DSS funds each resident it refers, so vacancies make it more difficult for the homes to meet funding needs.
David Nastasia, the director of residential and educational operations at Harbor Schools, said the merger between Harbor Schools and Easter Seals New Hampshire resulted in a "nice fit of broadening the range" of people who could live at a Harbor Schools home.
DSS officials would only release a prepared statement regarding the merger through its spokesman. In the statement, Richard Nangle, public affairs director for DSS, said it is too early to tell how the merger will affect the relationship between Harbor Schools and DSS.
"DSS does not yet know what impact, if any, the merger will have on its relationship with Harbor Schools," the statement said. "There has been no change in the criteria for referrals, and the merger should have no impact on children already referred by DSS to Harbor Schools. DSS continues to refer children to Harbor Schools using the same criteria it employed pre-merger."
Easter Seals — an organization with an 80-year history — is geared toward helping children and adults with special needs or disabilities. The organization has several large-scale residential, special-education treatment facilities for teenagers in New Hampshire, and now adds Harbor Schools to its services.
Having that expertise of running those facilities equivalent to Harbor Schools was helpful with the merger, McMahon said.
Youths who live at a Harbor School residence can choose to go to the local school system, be transported to a school in their hometown or attend the Harbor Schools' Amesbury campus. The Harbor Schools curriculum must meet the Department of Education Curriculum Frameworks. Students do take the MCAS.
The Amesbury school has classes for students in grades eight through 12. It also has a therapeutic day school for community-based students and for students who are placed in a Harbor School or another group home. Students typically stay at Harbor Schools from between three months and a year, depending on what services they need, McMahon said.
As a result of the merger, the organization is able to broaden its services and treatment options, McMahon said. The needs of clients referred to Harbor Schools vary, and with an increased capacity, there is the ability to expand and accept students with autism or developmental delays, though approval from the state Department of Education would be needed, McMahon said.
The Harbor Schools Executive Board remains intact, McMahon said. It was members' drive and desire to expand their services and programs that led to the merger, she said.
"Harbor Schools has tremendous commitment and dedication to its mission," McMahon said. "I was extremely impressed with the dedication and commitment of their board, and I remain in awe."
Correspondent Robin Thomas contributed to this article.