Students, alumni, and staff of the Wyncote Academy, a private school in Cheltenham for grades six through 12, were mourning the loss of their school after a ferocious fire destroyed it Saturday morning.
"The school, in and of itself, is a total loss," principal Kerry Leraris said Sunday. "But Wyncote will continue to exist, as it has for 41 years." She said classes for the school's 65 students would be canceled until Wednesday, when they will be held in space to be leased through the end of the year at Gratz College in Elkins Park.
"We've gotten an outpouring of love and support from parents to current students to alumni," she said, saying the school had made a difference in students' lives.
The school offers a unique, personalized education and college preparation to students who "don't fit in with bigger school settings" and those with learning disabilities and emotional issues, said Josh Bornstein, a math teacher at the school for 13 years. He said he was saddened by the news of the fire but was glad the school will stay open.
"Take heart, people. We're too dedicated (and stubborn) to ever quit the mission," he wrote on a Facebook page created as a tribute to the school.
"There was massive damage," said Cheltenham Fire Chief John Mulligan. "They lost the second floor and the roof, though some of the stone walls are intact."
Built in 1885, the school had been a manor house. It sits on a five-acre campus.
A neighbor called the fire department to report smelling smoke shortly after 6:30 a.m., Mulligan said. The blaze was brought under control around 10 a.m. He said the fire alarm at the school had not been hooked up to a 911 call center and it appeared the fire had been burning for quite a while before firefighters arrived.
Desks, computers, and the building interior were destroyed, Mulligan said. The fire is under investigation by the fire marshal, he said. The fire marshal could not be reached Sunday.
Dave Hamilton, a recent Wyncote graduate, posted pictures on Facebook Sunday depicting the now boarded-up school. He said he felt compelled to go back and see it because it had meant so much to him. "It is sad to see a building burn, but its memories live on in us," he wrote.
Riley Capus, who graduated in 2006, said in an interview, "That building symbolized the family that developed there. It saved lives; it saved sanity; it's a place for people who were not flourishing at other schools." Capus, who is working on her master's in social work, said the building was a beautiful place to learn, with a fireplace in the math class, an art studio made from two spacious rooms, and a cozy library.
"The building had a lot of character - it was very unique," Bornstein added. "It's very sad, but I've been trying to tell people it's just a building. We are the school and will continue."