Ridley-Lowell technical school abruptly closes New London, Danbury campuses

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Ridley-Lowell Business & Technical Institute, a school offering certifications in dental and medical fields, beauty and electrical work at campuses in New London and Danbury has closed abruptly, alerting students in an email Wednesday evening that "all future classes and programs are cancelled."

An administrator at the school, whose website lists locations in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Warwick, R.I., as well as Danbury and New London, blamed the closure in the email on "severe financial and operational challenges over the last year."

The U.S. Department of Education withdrew recognition of the school's accreditor last year, wrote Terry Weymouth, Ridley-Lowell's president.

"During this time, Ridley-Lowell dedicated substantial energy and resources to obtaining new accreditation and is currently awaiting decision from national accreditor (the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training)," Weymouth wrote. "Unfortunately, the resulting economic and operational impacts left Ridley-Lowell unable to continue in operation.  Efforts to secure outside investment were unsuccessful."

A phone call to the school's New London campus went unanswered Wednesday evening.

Mercedes Birkbeck said she signed up for a two-year program to get a medical assistant certification at the New London campus last January after leaving the Army on a medical leave, taking out student loans to pay the tuition.

She said she got the email from Weymouth less than an hour before she planned to leave her home in Westerly to attend night classes at the school Wednesday evening.

"It's a huge surprise," she said. "When I found out I couldn't believe it. ... They gave us literally no notice."

She said administrators had told students about the accreditation worries but had assured them it would not affect their certifications.

"They were like, 'We have it covered, there's nothing to ever worry about,'" she said.

Weymouth's email informed students they can access the school's online system to access their attendance records and grades through the end of April, and that students can get their transcripts from the state education agency in the state where they were attending the school.

Shannon Ozkan said she was five weeks away from getting her medical technician certification from Ridley-Lowell. She said she used financial aid and student loans to pay the $20,000 tuition and had been fighting to get access to financial aid funds to pay for a computer she needed for one of her classes.

The school's financial aid office "kept telling me the funds were frozen," she said Wednesday.

"I felt like something was going on," she said. "I kept telling everyone we need to hurry up and graduate. ... Something's really, really off about this school."

Robert Mitchell, an instructor at the school since 1999, said he left the New London office Wednesday afternoon, ready to take a planned vacation. He learned of the school's closing in an email hours later, he said.

"It's tough," he said. "I wasn't looking at retiring anytime soon."

Other instructors were told to come to the school Thursday to collect their belongings, but Mitchell said he left Wednesday with most of his things because he planned to be on vacation.

"I don't have anything personal there but a coffee mug," he said.

He estimated about 80 students were taking daytime classes at the school. He said he did not know how many students were taking night classes.

Robert Brubeck founded the school as the New London Business College in 1887. In its early years, in the Harris building on New London's State Street, its programs trained students, mostly men, in telegraphy, penmanship and bookkeeping.

The number of female students grew as more women entered the workforce; in 1893 it offered classes like phonography — using a dictaphone — typewriting, and English for up to $50 per course.

The school once had its own basketball team and hosted social events on the top of the Mohican Hotel, which was a few doors down from the school's later location. Its ownership changed once in 1934 and again in 1950, when members of the Van Hove family bought the school and ran it for 26 years before selling it to the current owners, Weymouth Business and Technical Institutes Corp., in 1978.

The school's name was changed to New London School of Business in the 1970s, and the Weymouth corporation later also bought or founded the campuses in New York and Rhode Island and changed the names of all the schools to Ridley-Lowell in the 1980s.

In 1981, the school's administrators said it was outgrowing its office space in the Manwaring building on Captain's Walk — now State Street — where it offered secretary training programs, word processing classes and a medical office assistant program. The school then was growing from about 70 students to 100 students that year, an administrator told The Day.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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