New England Academy: In the Business of Learning

August 2015

A unique school in Beverly survives—and thrives—in a highly regulated environment.

Founded in 2006, New England Academy (NEA), in Beverly, is a different kind of school. It’s a private, special-education institution devoted to providing students the academic challenge and clinical support they need to succeed. NEA serves students in grades 7 through 12 with identified social and/or emotional disabilities, offering an educational environment combining a rigorous academic curriculum, with school-based therapeutic support and intervention within a safe and supportive environment.

“We’re pretty highly sought after,” says CFO and co-founder John Vogus. “Our students come to us from about 50 different school districts throughout greater Boston, New Hampshire, and Maine.” Beyond its unique combination of academic and emotional support, NEA provides each student with a highly personalized experience, with some 42 staffers for its 95 students, and classroom sizes of eight to nine students each.   

Vogus and fellow co-founder/director Ryan Plosker, Ph.D., clearly believe in the concept: They started NEA with their own money—they’ve since secured other, private investors—and they want to run it like a business. They also make an interesting team. Plosker’s background has been in working to bridge the gap between psychology and education to meet the needs of students. His clinical work at Children’s Hospital in Boston to his later work as a public school psychologist, school director, and special-education administrator has prepared him for this role. Vogus, Plosker’s former neighbor in Wenham, is the managing partner at Haug Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Beverly.

Getting schooled

A veteran businessman, with a specialty in mergers and acquisitions, Vogus has quickly learned a great deal about the business of running a specialized private school. “This isn’t a loosey-goosey operation,” he says.  “It’s well run. Similar to any business I’ve been involved with, we have an independent audit each year and produce a uniform financial report. Those are state-mandated, public documents. We’re highly regulated and controlled. And, like any business, we’re about continuous improvement, from the way we insure ourselves to infrastructure change and updates.”

The first big hurdle

With growth, sometimes comes outgrowth. At the end of 2013, NEA found itself ready to move out of its rented quarters to a building of its own. A year later, the school was housed in a new, state-of-the-art, $7.5 million, two-story building in Cherry Hill Park in Beverly.

But getting there was no easy task. “We had to categorize all of our needs—everyone had a wish list,” notes Vogus. “There were academic, music, and art room needs, a high-end security system with cameras and panic alarms, back-office requirements, etc. The IT move alone was going to run about $25,000. So we needed help.”

Fortunately, Vogus and NEA found partners that would help bring it all together. First was Steve Connelly, a partner in the Beverly Farms-based Connelly Brothers construction firm (see “Connolly Brothers: More Than a Century of Vision,” to learn more). Connelly helped build the new school and also became an NEA partner.

“From the start, Steve was involved in what we were doing and was always there for us,” Vogus says. “Here’s an example: We thought we smelled gas, so we gave him a call. An hour later, there’s Steve on a ladder, with his head in the ceiling. Turns out it was a gas company issue, but Steve was there for us and has been, whenever we’ve needed him.”

Finding the right funding

In fact, Connelly was largely responsible for helping NEA get the funding needed to build the Cherry Hill facility. The school and Vogus were originally working with a local community bank. While their relationship was a good one—Vogus, in fact, sat on their advisory board—a shift in ownership changed the financing landscape.

“The transition was botched and I found that I couldn’t even figure out who my loan officer was,” notes Vogus. “We tried going to a couple of other banks, but we couldn’t get funding for the new building. I didn’t know who to call.”

Connelly, whose business had a longstanding relationship with Salem Five, suggested that Vogus speak with Paul Passeri, a senior vice president at the bank. “We met with Paul and a couple other folks there, and it was like a light bulb went on,” Vogus exclaims. “They got it. And, given the experiences we had with other banks, that’s not easy. Our financials are a little different from other businesses and there’s more nuance involved. For example, we have more rigorous reporting needs, we’re capped as far as profit goes, and shareholders are taxed on their profits. But Paul and [Salem Five Commercial Lending Division Head] John Hall took the time to tour our facility, listened to what we had to say about the business, and truly understood it. We finally felt that we had a solid financial partner.”

Salem Five line of credit helped NEA get into its new facility and remains in place for other needs. “We have a plan in place to pay off all of our debt, and we’ve shared it with the bank,” says Vogus. “But I think we’ll always keep that line in place and I want to maintain our relationship. They’ve been there for us, and been there without question. There’s no magic bullet for any relationship, but it starts with trust. That’s what we have with Salem Five. We’ve been talking about expansion; about having maybe three more schools that might be on the North Shore, South Shore, and Braintree. And it’s partners like Steve Connelly, Paul Passeri, and Salem Five that will get us there.”