Executive Spotlight: Gerard E. 'Jerry' Burke

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PITTSFIELD — In 1984, a for-profit Berkshire-based school for students with mental and emotional issues ran into financial problems and was taken over by the state.

Avalon School, founded in 1949 in Monterey, maintained a significant presence in the county. At its peak, the school had 265 residents, 520 employees and several campuses, according to Eagle files.

The former Hillcrest Hospital stepped in to save the program, working out a deal with the state to buy the school. The hospital formed the not-for-profit Hillcrest Educational Foundation to manage what had been a private enterprise that was now heavily in debt. Three months after the sale took place, Gerard E. "Jerry" Burke arrived in the Berkshires in 1985 as part of the organization's new management team.

Today, Hillcrest Educational Foundation is an umbrella organization for four separate entities with a $35 million budget and 550 employees.

Burke, who became Hillcrest's president and CEO in 1992, has been there for the entire ride.

Q: How was the Hillcrest Educational Foundation formed?

A: Avalon School had seven or eight different sites, but they were a for-profit, and ran into major financial problems. At the time, Hillcrest Hospital was looking for different diversification. They saw this as a way to save some jobs because there were a couple hundred people employed there, and a number of kids getting services. So, the intent was to maintain that environment for them to be successful.

Q: Was it difficult at first?

A: It was a very risky [venture] because you were taking over something that was bankrupt. The only available financing was a junk bond at a 13.5 percent interest rate. ... Under the covenant of governance of finances, you couldn't take on any more debt.

Q: How did you do it?

A: Number one was trial and error. Our first 10 years, we were very restricted on what we could do in regards to finances, etc. After 10 years, we were able to finance our debt and drop our interest rate. We took out extra money and started to add dormitories, gymnasiums and really enhance the physical plant. Right around that time we opened up a new program as well.

We got joint commission accreditation, so we upgraded what we were trying to accomplish. But, honestly, a lot of it was trial and error.

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Q: How were you able to get to where you are

today?

A: I think what we did was respond to what the needs of the marketplace were and we grew in very strategic ways. For instance, back in the '80s we had a lot of students who nobody locally would take care of their dental needs. So, we started our own dental clinic. Then the market really needed a program for autistic kids. We opened programs that way.

Q: Your last big expansion occurred in 2016, when Hillcrest purchased the former St. Mark's School in Pittsfield for $1.2 million. Is more expansion planned at this point?

A: I think over the next couple of years, as the population stabilizes in the county, we'll be focusing our efforts on quality improvements, and increase our positive outcome studies; getting better at what we do while we see the labor market changes.

Q: How has the treatment for students with special needs changed since you came to the

Berkshires?

A: It's evolved and continues to evolve in a lot of different ways. We understand more about people's disabilities. We understand more about learning styles, and we're always trying to figure out what the next area is that we can enhance to meet that need.

Q: The students who attend Hillcrest are referred to your organization by their school districts. In your opinion, with public school budgets so tight, is it better for students who need special education services to receive them at a not-for-profit like Hillcrest?

A: I think the public schools have done a phenomenal job developing supports and in-house programs to deal with a higher number of special education kids than they have in the past. ... But, there's going to be a percentage of kids that need more than what the public schools can give them. From our perspective, getting those kids stabilized, and enhancing their academics, and getting them back into the public school system is our goal. Our goal is not to keep them long term. Now, unfortunately, with the autistic kids, that may be the case. But when kids to come to our academy or the residential [programs], we want that length of stay to be only what's necessary.

Q: What's a typical length of stay?

A: Back in the '80s and '90s we'd have kids five or six years. Now, we have them 12 to 18 months, maybe 24. Once again, it's depending on the severity. We help them with their skills and their coping mechanisms, how they react to stress and the challenges to be successful and then get them back into that environment as quick as we can.


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