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School & Program Visits - Apr, 1993 Issue #21 

Oldtown, Maryland
Tim Snyder, Director
Tom Croke Visit: 2-18-93

My tour of New Dominion occurred on a cold winter day. This was certainly the optimum time to see how New Dominion's students cope with adversity.

New Dominion is a truly unique program. It is a school, but does not fit any of the standard models of traditional or alternative schools I have seen. It is a wilderness program, but with very different methods and objectives from the wilderness programs most of us deal with in the West, and also very different from Outward Bound. I think this is important, because prior images of a "school," or a "wilderness program," prevented me from understanding what this program really is when others have tried to describe it to me. To understand it, I needed to erase those prior images.

New Dominion operates what they tell me are virtually identical programs on two sites, one at Dillwyn, Virginia, near Charlottesville, and the other at Oldtown, Maryland, near Cumberland. They claim to differ only in that the Virginia site has diploma granting authority as a secondary school, while the Maryland site does not. My report is based on observations at the Maryland site.

New Dominion serves boys 11 to 18 who exhibit behavioral difficulties, but who are not entirely closed to forming relationships, not actively suicidal nor presenting risk of immediate harm to others, having no thought disorders, and physically capable of handling a rigorous program. Many of the boys are supported at New Dominion on public funds. All of the boys I had the opportunity to observe showed strong evidence of ability to interact warmly and supportively, and none showed signs of either serious emotional imbalance or hardened criminal tendencies. Our host, Maryland Director Tim Snyder, stated that they are careful in screening, admitting only those boys they are confident of being able to help. A parent need not be concerned that his/her son is going into a "tough" environment which will cause a son to become hardened nor place the boy in danger.

I talked with some boys who had not previously enjoyed the outdoors, and they thought being forced to deal with this setting was the best thing which could have happened to them. A boy with attention deficit disorder would not be distinguishable from one with no such handicap, given the constant level of group activity.

The program is based upon forcing the boys, individually, and as part of a small family-like group, to deal with the non-negotiable tasks of living on a day to day basis, in the woods, and in supportive community with each other. Unlike most wilderness programs, which work with an intended shock value or impact phase, this program works its magic very gradually and less dramatically, always with the basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing within reach, and always with the surrounding of a supportive community. When a student needs to be separated from the group, he will be given a work assignment with a staff member working at his side on task useful to the group. Surrounding the boys with positive relationships is never interrupted.

The primary task of the group is to provide for the most basic needs of the individuals, physically and emotionally, on a continuing basis. The primary task of the individual is to become and maintain ones self as a contributing member of the group. Days are dominated by such tasks as cutting and preparing firewood, building structures, chipping ice from trails, cooking (two days per week; meals are served in the central kitchen five days per week) and other daily housekeeping chores. Staff constantly work at the sides of the boys. All recreational activities are shared as a group, and based upon group selection. Recreational activities do include "evenings out," and going into town as a group. There is very limited free time, usually devoted to litter writing and quiet time.

Key transition points occur when a boy has been at New Dominion about two to four months, and shows evidence of cooperation with the program. At that time, he earns his "crest," a symbol which is worn visibly on outer clothing. With this goes the privilege of the first family conference which can lead to home visits, being allowed to attend school, and entering certain restricted areas on campus. Another milestone is the "senior crest," granted to boys who have been on campus for over a year and exemplify the hoped for results of the program. These boys are given some latitude to interact with other boys out of their own group, and share an advanced group with each other.

The program uses outside specialists for unusual needs, and brings specialists on campus once per week for focused attention to boys who are sexual offenders and boys with drug/alcohol issues. Family therapy is handled by an in-house specialist.

Sleeping quarters are simple structures built with a log skeleton, draped in plastic, with crushed stone floors, and a wood stove in the center, fitted with an adequate chimney pipe. In severe cold (below 10 of 15 degrees F.), the boys take sleeping bags to one of the more secure buildings in the central area, and sleep indoors. Toilets in the camp sites are of the old fashioned variety, constructed by the boys themselves.

The camp sites are located out of sight and sound of each other and the central area, but within a ten minute walk. The central area includes administrative offices, school, dining room and kitchen, library, infirmary, wood shop, shower house, and weight room. Other facilities of the central area (shower house, weight room) would be used by the boys when assigned to their group.

The program includes between six and eight trips off site between late spring and early fall. These activities are interspersed with other parts of the program such as we might experience in any other therapeutic school or program. School is highly individualized. Although a teacher may be attending to several students at one time, instruction is in the style of a tutorial. This gives wide latitude for supporting a student's individual needs and accommodation of variant learning styles. Even with comparatively modest classroom time (one to five hours in a day, only after the crest is earned) students will usually close the gap on deficiencies, and make significantly more than one year's progress.

This program will be a prime consideration for me for students who are not verbally gifted, and very expressive physically. To limit consideration to that group does it an injustice, however, as there is evidence of a very positive impact on a much broader group, and at a surprisingly low cost.

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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