A remnant of the halcyon days of a town that once forged steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, with its manicured walls, stately buildings, and stained-glass windows, the Hill School -- whose alumni include Donald Trump Jr., Gov. Wolf, and the moviemaker Oliver Stone -- is an anomaly in Pottstown.
While the town has struggled economically and has some of the region's highest property-tax rates, enrollment at Hill, where the $55,665 annual cost for tuition and board fees is $10,000 higher than the borough's median household income, has reached an all-time high.
"The Hill is perceived as to be very isolated, ...a self-focused organization," said headmaster Zachary Lehman. "There is a bit of a 'town-and-gown' issue."
Now school officials say they want to become more involved in the community. And loosely following a model used by the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin and Marshall University, they have launched the "Hobart's Run" initiative, named for the nearby neighborhood where they are looking to improve the quality of life, attract investors, and buck up real estate values and the borough's sagging tax base.
Hill officials say this is the only such initiative in the nation undertaken by a high school.
The Hill School has been actively involved in Pottstown CARES, a partnership among the school, the Pottstown School District, and Montgomery County Community College. Hill students have volunteered for clean-ups and have helped Habitat for Humanity rehabilitate and beautify homes.
The Hobart's Run initiative will bring investors and community members to the table to discuss the revitalization effort, school officials said. Currently, 30 parcels are on the market in the neighborhood, including some that are "blighted."
"It's taking those properties where we know people want to sell and putting it into the hands of investors that want to buy; it's kind of matchmaking," said Twila Fisher, director of Hobart's Run. An investors conference is scheduled for next month.
"There's certainly some self-interest," said Lehman. "We don't shy away from that we want there to be a vibrant community for our students and faculty to be enjoyed."
"The larger perception that folks have had of the Hill School [is] that the Hill School only cares about its own agenda and its own well-being," said Fisher.
But Pottstown residents and businesspeople interviewed generally spoke favorably of the school.
"I think they are really doing a lot, an awful lot. A lot of the woes of the town have nothing to do with the Hill School," said Kathy Reifke, owner of Pottstown Florist.
One point of contention, however, has been the fact that school property would be generating about $2.2 million annually for the town and schools were it not tax-exempt. The school does make a payment in lieu of taxes of just under $90,000.
"Pottstown is ungodly expensive to live in; the tax base is so high, especially considering the economics here," said Reifke. "They do keep taxable parcels off of the tax roll, which does have an impact."
The owner of a median-valued home, about $145,000, would pay $4,500 annually in property taxes. By comparison, the bill of a similarly valued home in Upper Merion Township would be $2,100.
But it's not as though the Hill School is the only place that's off the tax rolls, points out John Armato, spokesman for the Pottstown School District. For example, Pottstown has over 60 churches, which are situated on legally tax-exempt properties. "So, it's a bigger issue than just saying, 'Hey, we wish the Hill School paid taxes.' "
"It's in everybody's best interest to work together on projects that will redevelop our community. The Hobart's Run initiative is a very positive step in that direction," said Armato.
Lehman said the neighborhood is one of the things prospective applicants consider, and compared with those surrounding other exclusive boarding schools, it is "a bigger hurdle."
"I'm not working to improve the perception of the school," Lehman said. "Our real interest is improving the community. We really can't control what people think about the school; we can only take action to demonstrate. It's our deeds, not our words.
"Many of the town residents have never stepped foot on our campus … They make a lot of assumptions about who we are and what our intentions are.
"I think they would find … that the people involved in the Hill School are generous, thoughtful, engaged community members, who would like nothing better than Pottstown to be successful."