BROOKLINE — At a men’s soccer game last month, a player from Elms College hurled a racial slur at a competitor from Pine Manor College. Pine Manor students heard it from the stands, confronted the player, and asked him to apologize.
Pine Manor students say the incident showed how the small school, with its population of mostly minority, low-income, and first-generation students, is like a family, and how its students look out for each other.
Now they say they are ready to mobilize their close-knit community to fight a new unwelcome force: the town of Brookline.
Last week town officials informed Pine Manor College president Tom O’Reilly that Brookline is considering taking 7 acres of the school’s front lawn by eminent domain to build an elementary school. Brookline says its growing population of young children calls for a ninth elementary school and described the Pine Manor land as ideal. The college was caught off guard and is angry that town officials would suggest seizing the land instead of building elsewhere.
“When it comes to defending the college, we’ll defend it,” said Jeandreshka Romero, a Pine Manor junior from the Bronx.
“When you pick on me, you pick on the rest of our campus,” said her classmate, Wendy M. Napoleon from Brockton.
Students are not the only ones who have pledged to defend the school since learning of the town’s proposal last week. O’Reilly is a lifelong Bostonian, and in his first year as president he has begun to tap his deep network of influential people to help the struggling college he’s trying to turn around.
“I can’t think of a worse location for an [elementary] school,” said former governor Michael Dukakis, a lifelong Brookline resident who first met O’Reilly in 1974. Dukakis was running for governor; O’Reilly, then a high-schooler, worked on his campaign.
Dukakis is concerned that what the town sees as a boom in the population of young children is actually just a blip. And he is worried about putting a new school on a narrow road that winds through a neighborhood of mansions where few children reside.
“This one just seems to me, for all kinds of reasons, a strange place to try to put a school, and I do think we ought to do some serious rethinking,” Dukakis said this week in a phone interview.
The proposal to seize Pine Manor land has generated of a flurry of interest among other residents, about 100 of whom attended a meeting Tuesday night at the high school, where the selectmen and school committee presented drawings of how they would erect a school on the college’s property along Heath Street.
Neil Wishinsky, chairman of the selectmen, opened the meeting by calling Pine Manor a good neighbor. He said the school contributed more than $40,000 last year in payments in lieu of taxes — but he also noted that the college has sold part of its property in the past.
The town’s architectural consultant, Jonathan Levi, presented a drawing of what would be built on 7.2 acres of the Pine Manor’s campus: a three-story curved building along Heath Street with a small rotary for parent drop-off on one side and a sports field on the other. The pond on Pine Manor’s campus would be preserved, he said.
“How wonderful it would it be to have a school with a water feature in its view,” Levi said. “As long as we could keep the children safe, that would be certainly a marvelous attribute for a school site.”
O’Reilly, who also spoke at the meeting, described the situation as shocking. He said it was the first time he had seen what the town had planned for the school’s land.
“I’ll take your front yard and I’m going to plop a whole monstrous structure right there and I’m not going to talk to you about it, I’m not going to ask whether it affects you, I’m just going to do it,” he told the crowd.
O’Reilly read from a report the town produced a year ago that ruled out the Pine Manor land because it said the college did not want to sell and eminent domain would be “hostile.”
That is still the case, he said. And although the college sold land in the past, he said, it is now financially healthy and doesn’t need to sell more.
Many longtime Bostonians think of Pine Manor College as what it was for decades — a two-year finishing school for wealthy women. But in recent years it has come to serve an entirely different population: low-income, minority, and first-generation students.
Eighty-five percent of the students are people of color and 84 percent are the first in their family to attend college, according to Pine Manor. Twenty-seven percent come from Boston Public Schools.
The school has lost money for years, and it is on probation from the regional accrediting agency. O’Reilly became president last year and has quickly turned around its finances. The college now has about 250 degree-seeking undergraduates pursuing two- and four-year degrees and the same number of foreign students who come for intensive language programs and whose tuition makes up 27 percent of the school’s revenue.
O’Reilly is also working to improve the school’s graduation rate, which at 36 percent is low but better than average for low-income, minority, and first-generation students.
The school can be costly for these students — about $43,000 annually including room and board. O’Reilly said students typically fund one-third with loans, one-third with scholarships, and one-third themselves.
Napoleon, who is studying English and psychology, works weekends as a receptionist at a nearby nail salon in Chestnut Hill. She expects to graduate with at least $45,000 in debt.
Napoleon knows she’ll be paying that off for years, but she is happy with her decision. She likes the diversity, the nature on campus, and the high level of attention from professors. That wasn’t the case at Brockton High School, she said, where her graduating class had more than 1,000 students. Here, she feels like people want her to succeed.
“You get a shot,” Napoleon said.
The Pine Manor campus is surrounded by a neighborhood far different from its students. Some of the area’s richest and most prominent residents live there. New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft lives to the east, his son Jonathan to the west, and quarterback Tom Brady to the south, on 5 acres he purchased from the school in 2013.
On the other side — directly north of the school’s main entrance — lives Tori Hackett. She, like the Krafts, is part of a group of neighbors opposed to another site the town was considering a half-mile down the road from Pine Manor. Many opposed that site because of traffic concerns, among other reasons.
Hackett said she has watched Pine Manor for almost 20 years and said it seems like the school has turned a corner.
“I think this eminent domain seizing could sink this very well-intentioned college,” she said. “And how ironic, right, you would sink one educational institution for another.”