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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1993 Issue #20 

Tom Bratter, President
The John Dewey Academy

I would like to respond to Tom Croke's comments (Issue #19) describing his impressions of The John Dewey Academy. I agree with Tom's premise, "A referral to The John Dewey Academy is a high risk, high gain affair." I submit, however, this has little to do with the philosophy or methodology of our school. The risk to which Croke refers pertains to the educational-psycho-social characteristics of our students and the admittedly ambitious goal of the program--i.e., to convince colleges of quality to admit graduates. We admit angry, alienated, bright-brilliant adolescents whose self-destructive behavior not only places them at risk but also requires residential placement. Our students have acted-out against an environment which they feel is inimical to their affective, psychological, and cognitive needs.

30% are referred from inpatient psychiatric facilities; 40% arrive medicated with potent psychotropic prescriptions. All are abstinent which reflects The JDA's anti-medicine and anti-drug philosophy. Often their major success has been to convince others (including themselves) they are losers, rejects, retards. They have imprisoned themselves in the "no win-no exit" cesspool where the only expectation of failure begets more failure.

The JDA promises "no miracles" nor guarantees success; our only promise is to do our best to help students begin to use, rather than continue to abuse their superior potential, and in so doing achieve the greatness of which they once were capable by working diligently. When students win, their victories are dramatic, and sometimes miraculous. The converse, sadly, constitutes an occupational hazard; when students leave prematurely the consequences can be tragic. Since our students win more frequently than they lose, I offer no apology nor do I feel defensive. The success rate can be explained in part because The JDA is voluntary. No one remains against personal wishes. There is a two-week probation period when the adolescent decides whether to stay; then there will be a vote by peers. Students are placed in a stressful, unrelenting, and uncompromising environment which demands continual improvement. I plead guilty to being "cruel" and tough. I never am satisfied. I have criticized a student who achieves an "A" average because I know with more effort an "A+" could be attained. Some students feel angry and frustrated that they have not pleased me, but the all-important message is communicated on the most profound level, "You can do better!" Unless adults demand improved behavior, these adolescents will not change.

I wish to explain Croke's concern that when a graduate who "brings discredit on the credibility of The JDA... will feel the impact of Tom Bratter's [wrath]." Our students are not admitted to colleges of distinction because they are good looking and have competitive academic records. They are admitted because I accompany them when they visit the campus and meet with the dean or director of admission, write candid letters of recommendation which average six pages, and may contact a trustee or president of the institution of higher learning. The reputations of The John Dewey Academy and Tom Bratter, who acts as a persuasive and passionate advocate, plus the performances of our graduates at other colleges convince offices of admissions to admit a student. I contend, a reciprocal relationship exists so that The JDA has an explicit commitment to alert colleges should an adolescent begin to self-destruct and engage in anti-social behavior. At The JDA, students learn about "responsible concern" which suggests confronting friends when they behave in irresponsible ways or adopt negative attitudes. I model this behavior when I intervene to force the student adopt more responsible behavior and to protect others from being injured or harmed--i.e., to limit potential damage to the college. Tom Croke is right, "Nothing is hidden and what you see is what you get." Students and their families know there are pay-offs and consequences to behavior. An implicit contract exists, furthermore, between the graduate and The JDA. Graduates retain an obligation to future generations of students to act in such a way to help them to get the chance they have been given.

What Tom Croke neglected to mention is there are some who do not send us students because we do not give them unlimited opportunities to be disruptive. The John Dewey Academy refuses to compromise our primary identity as a bona fide college preparatory-therapeutic school. Tom Croke is accurate when he observes, "The classes I attended were conducted with excellence matching the finest independent schools." Five of the faculty have doctorates.

I urge educational consultants to be selective when considering a referral and to appreciate that our goals are ambitious. We want those few who have the superior potential, who recognize the wrongness of their ways, and who want to justify their existence by re-(gaining) self respect. Tom Croke is correct when he describes JDA students as "the most self-regulated...I have ever seen." This is not coincidental. The community is governed by positive peer pressure and a social contract. The student either "grows" or "goes" which becomes a personal choice. The JDA does not wish to waste time interviewing students who do not want to work diligently by studying a minimum of four hours a day.

Tom Croke is right, The JDA is a "high gain affair." Attending a college of distinction permits the student to seal permanently past their pathetic performances while concurrently maximizing future educational, professional, personal, and social options.

Copyright 1993, 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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