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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 1990 Issue 

What Are Special Purpose Schools?
Lon Woodbury

Special Purpose schools and programs work with children who are failing in the job of growing up. They are a fairly new phenomenon in this country since most of them are less than ten years old. They seem to be a blend of traditional academic boarding schools and various therapeutic models, with a heavy dose of wilderness and experiential education thrown in. They are a positive-orientation reaction to the punishment minded reform schools of an earlier era. They also seem to be a successful manifestation of the move for privatization in education.

I have never seen a comprehensive definition of Special Purpose schools as a category, but, as a start toward a definition, let me list some attributes I see from my experience.

  1. They are usually private, put together by an educational entrepreneur with a vision. Public schools are not automatically eliminated in my view, but are so hamstrung by federal, state, and local regulations that the public school focus tends to be on satisfying outside mandated requirements instead of the needs of their students.

  2. The most important criteria for hiring staff tends to be their ability to relate positively with the students. Credentials are important, but secondary to the ability to establish positive relationships.

  3. Parent or guardian involvement is strongly encouraged, and in some cases mandated.

  4. Wilderness and outdoor activities are important and usually an integral part of the curriculum.

  5. A major goal of the school or program is to specifically teach values such as personal responsibility, honesty, and consequences of actions.

  6. Service projects to the community are very commonly used to teach personal values.

  7. They see their goal as the education of the whole child.

  8. They are usually residential.

  9. These schools see the cause of academic failure as usually evolving out of emotional and behavior problems.

  10. They usually do not believe in punishment as such, but help facilitate natural consequences as a more effective way to help students learn responsibility for themselves.

  11. Most Special Purpose school teachers feel they are making a difference. I see much less job frustration than I do in the public system for example.

  12. A key tool is one-on-one interaction between the student and the faculty.

The whole philosophy of Special Purpose schools and programs is different than any other kind of youth institution. In the scheme of youth programs, these schools lie somewhere between traditional schools, and hospitals. Many children currently in hospitals could be better served by the structure of a special purpose program. At the same time, many children would do better if their parents would send them to a Special Purpose school or program rather than desperately trying to find a traditional school with "the magic touch." They are an alternative to programs which use punishment as a means of changing attitudes, seeing punishment as too often teaching resentment, bitterness, and manipulation.

With this as a background, let me try a definition. Special Purpose schools and programs are ones that respond to the child's needs ahead of other considerations, and have a whole child philosophy which expressly addresses the child's mental, physical and emotional growth in a positive, trust fostering environment. I would welcome any suggestions toward an improvement of this definition.

Copyright 1990, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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