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St. Petersburg's private Wellington School to close May 26

Susan Baraybar, Wellington School’s chief operations manager and daughter of founders Andrew and Lorraine Pelosi, stands in the school’s Seminole campus science room with students, from left front, Zachary Sanders, 9, Nathan Sanders, 11, and, at back, Annabella Eckman, 6, and Raiya Eckman, 9. A letter announcing the school’s closing went out Jan. 3.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Susan Baraybar, Wellington School’s chief operations manager and daughter of founders Andrew and Lorraine Pelosi, stands in the school’s Seminole campus science room with students, from left front, Zachary Sanders, 9, Nathan Sanders, 11, and, at back, Annabella Eckman, 6, and Raiya Eckman, 9. A letter announcing the school’s closing went out Jan. 3.

After 36 years, the Wellington School, a private, independent school for students from prekindergarten to eighth grade, is closing.

With the recession taking its toll on enrollment, it fell to the daughter of founders Andrew and Lorraine Pelosi to announce the decision at the start of the new year.

"We have been supplementing the budget, and we just simply cannot afford to do that any longer,'' said Susan Baraybar, the Pelosis' daughter and chief operations manager.

Last fall, the school moved all the students at its St. Petersburg campus, at 5175 45th St. N, to its smaller Seminole campus at 8000 Starkey Road, in an effort to balance the budget. The St. Petersburg campus remained open for offices and athletics.

The last day for the school, which has 165 students, will be May 26.

Wendy Miskewich, whose 8-year-old daughter, Justine, has been a student at Wellington since she was 4, said she is sad.

"I am very disappointed, because I thought Justine would be there until the eighth grade. But as disappointed as I am that they are closing, I am confident that Justine will do well because of the strong foundation that was provided for her,'' said Miskewich, a project manager for Hennessy Construction Services.

"I have known Susan Baraybar and her mom since before Justine was conceived," she said. "I built their gym at their St. Pete campus. I remember when we had the ground-breaking ceremony. I was so impressed with the students.''

The letter announcing the closing went out Jan. 3. Baraybar said it was timed to give families an opportunity to make other plans, including meeting the deadline for signing up for Pinellas County's fundamental schools.

"In looking beyond this year, we must be realistic in considering the challenges we are faced with regarding the continuation of Wellington School,'' the letter said.

"As you all know, we downsized to mostly one class per grade level. This was necessary due to space constraints and demand. The result of this condition leaves us vulnerable to attrition issues when students leave our school.''

In her letter, Baraybar blamed the economy for proving "to be a challenge to most independent schools.''

Last year, the 30-year-old Pinellas County Jewish Day School was forced to close. Attempts to start another collapsed.

Wellington tried to survive by attempting to become a nonprofit institution, Baraybar said. She said her family planned to donate a large portion of the value of the business and the Seminole property to the new organization, but a newly formed board of directors would have needed to raise additional money to fund the transition.

"We weren't able to do that,'' she said. "To raise a large amount of capital wasn't really part of the culture of our school. So we decided to end the chapter and put the property up for sale. … We considered all of our options."

At its peak in 2003, the school, which started in 1974 in a church on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, had about 400 students. The recession, though, forced many parents to cut costs by removing their children from the school, where tuition is $8,850 for elementary school and $8,950 for middle school.

As well, said Baraybar, in recent years the school has been losing seventh- and eighth-grade students to fundamental schools.

Baraybar said her mother started out with a preschool and launched Wellington at the encouragement of parents.

"It was always my dream that the legacy of Wellington would continue,'' she told parents in her letter. "As I reflect on the wonderful students that have come through the school over the years, I realize that our very own Wellington Alumni are in fact the legacy. They represent the result of the labor and commitment of so many fine educators and administrators over the years."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

St. Petersburg's private Wellington School to close May 26 01/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 4:56pm]
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