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Bryan Eaton/Staff photo Harbor Schools building at 72 High St. in Newburyport.

NEWBURYPORT — When Harbor Schools joined with Easter Seals of New Hampshire in 2007, it was described as a "win-win."

But six years into that agreement between the two nonprofits, the merger has been anything but, as enrollment dwindled, programs were shut down, and properties in Amesbury and Newbury sold off to pay off mounting debt.

The four remaining Harbor School properties — one each in Newburyport and Merrimac and two in Haverhill — will be closed in the near future, marking an end to a program that worked to house and educate emotionally troubled and neglected youths in the state.

Harbor Schools has been active in Greater Newburyport for 39 years. At its height, it owned and operated a high school in Amesbury and a variety of residential homes in Amesbury, Newbury, Newburyport, Salisbury, Merrimac and Haverhill.

"It doesn't really look like a win-win," said Harbors School alumna Kerry Hume of Salem. The 28-year-old credits Harbor Schools with helping her turn her life around when she was a teenager.

"It's sad because it's a wonderful program that impacted so many individuals," Hume said.

The state Department of Children and Family Services and Easter Seals of New Hampshire officials say they are working to transition the remaining students in the four facilities to other programs.

The closure isn't only due to the debt that Easter Seals agreed to take on when it took over operating Harbor Schools; it was a change in the way Massachusetts referred students to their programs.

"The numbers have been declining," said Karen Van Der Beken, senior vice president of development and communication at Easter Seals of New Hampshire. "When that happens, it's difficult to run a program when there aren't enough children participating."

The drop in referrals came as the state made deep cuts to the state budget following the 2008 collapse of the economy.

Also, school districts have been able to accommodate children with physical disabilities and developmental disabilities, Van Der Beken said.

Harbor Schools isn't only a residential program. Some of the programs also offer an education program in which students with emotional, behavioral and developmental problems can spend the day there instead of a "regular" school.

The decision to close Harbor Schools was made recently, when a new proposal to the state for new referrals was rejected, according to Bradford Cook, an attorney and chairman of the board of directors for Easter Seals of New Hampshire.

Cook said Massachusetts does not appear to be approving new programs because of budgetary constraints.

"The board of directors had to make a decision to close," Cook said.

Prior to closing, Harbor Schools intended to run a leaner program in its four remaining properties.

Last summer, Easter Seals sold the property on Main Street in Amesbury to Sparhawk School for $1.2 million. That money went to pay off a line of credit, Cook said.

In November, the Harbor Schools property at Rolfe's Lane in Newbury was sold for $2 million to pay off a bond debt.

Cook said Easter Seals of New Hampshire knew about the bond debt when the Granite State organization took over operations in 2007. Bonds are common for nonprofits, and Harbor Schools tapped into the money to purchase and improve their facilities years ago.

Cook said Harbor Schools merged with Easter Seals of New Hampshire because the organization's board of directors knew they were having "serious operational problems" and were looking for a larger organization with which to affiliate.

Easter Seals of New Hampshire is Harbor Schools' parent organization with oversight and responsibility for eight nonprofit subsidiary groups, including Easter Seals of Maine, Easter Seals of Vermont, Easter Seals of New York, Easter Seals of Connecticut and Easter Seals of Rhode Island. The group is not affiliated with Easter Seals of Massachusetts.

Easter Seals of New Hampshire agreed to use its expertise to help Harbor Schools, Cook said. The first year was a success, with a strong number of students receiving services, but after the referrals dropped, the organization has been losing money ever since.

"It wasn't viable," Cook said.

The loss of Harbor School is disappointment to Hume, who is currently working on a dual master's degree in education and psychology. She's looking to help kids who face situations like hers and is interested in incorporating animal therapy with emotionally challenged children.

At 13 years old, Hume was taken out of an abusive home on the South Shore. She spent years bouncing around foster homes, teenage shelters and other short-term placements. She was in 12 different high schools before arriving at a Harbor School facility in Haverhill.

When she walked inside, the first thing she noticed was pictures on the wall.

"(I also) saw people being treated more like a family. It stood out to me," she said.

She was in Haverhill for three months before moving to the Newburyport residential home for girls on High Street.

She credits the director there for being like a mother to her: teaching her how to make home-cooked meals, helping her get a prom dress and being with her when police interviewed her about the abuse she suffered.

"It's something that every kid deserves," Hume said.

READERS BOX

Over the past 6 years, Harbor Schools has sold most of its local properties.

WherePriceWhen

Pleasant Valley Road, Amesbury$750,000March 2006

Garfield Street, Salisbury$290,000August 2006

High Street, Amesbury$265,000March 2007

Main Street, Amesbury$1,200,000July 2011

Rolfe's Lane, Newbury$2,000,000November 2011

Pleasant Valley Road, Amesbury$231,200January 2012

SOURCE: Essex County Registry of Deeds

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