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Schools & Program Visits - Dec, 1996 Issue #43 

Dillwyn, Virginia & Oldtown, Maryland 
Don Williams (VA) & Al Romaine (MD), Adms. Dir.
804-983-2051 (VA) or 301-478-5721 (MD) 
Lon's Visit: November 21-22, 1996 

New Dominion School was founded in 1976 in Virginia, and duplicated itself in 1981 with a Maryland campus. Although the two campuses are administered separately, a concerted effort has been made over the years to maintain program consistency between the two campuses. Thus any description of one program will apply to the other, with only minor differences. Part of the reason for this consistency is many of the key staff have worked at both campuses over the years. The major exception to the similarities is the recent addition of a girls program in the Virginia campus. Another recent change is the acquisition of New Dominion by Three Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Programs. However, all the staff I discussed this with emphasized that the only way the acquisition by Three Springs has influenced the program is to give the school more financial depth. For example, the Virginia campus has just acquired an Alpine Climbing tower, something that would have been very difficult for the School to have afforded before the acquisition. Otherwise, New Dominion staff tell me Three Springs has told them to just keep doing what they have been doing all along. 

The new girls program is situated on the opposite side of the Virginia school's 500 acres from the boys program. By design, there is no contact between the boys and the girls, so both programs qualify as single sex programs. I had the opportunity to see the girls talent show, which was probably the best way to see at a glance the whole culture of the girls' program. Everybody enjoyed themselves, and no matter how stumbling a performance, each received a enthusiastic round of applause. The smiles were glowing, the girls had fun, and the show was obviously a resounding success, both as to the girls having fun, and each successfully pushing their own personal limits. 

It was during the show I realized I couldn't tell by watching, which were the new girls, and which girls had been there the longest. In most programs the new kids are obvious from their long faces and sour looks. In the talent show, all were being kids, all were nervous, and all were obviously in the program. 

I asked Director Chris Yates about my observation, and he told me the staff had been very pleasantly surprised by how successful the girls program had been. They had found that new girls walk around glum, sullen and resistant for only about two or three days. In a very short time, the older girls "socialized" the new girls. The process of new girls getting into the program emotionally seemed to be much quicker than had been New Dominion's experience from running the boys programs. 

In speculating with staff about the possible reasons for this success in the girls program, I came up with three possible reasons. One was that in working with boys, New Dominion had inadvertently come up with a culture that is even more successful with girls. Another possible explanation was the excitement of literally carving a new school out of the wilderness gives a stronger sense of ownership to the girls than does enrolling in an already established school as the boys do. A third possible explanation is that girls perhaps have a stronger ability and motivation to socialize into a new group than do boys, thus a faster tendency to join the group and work the program. This would suggest that peer pressure might be more powerful with girls than with boys, at least so far as accepting the groups culture. 

Virginia campus Director Chris Yates emphasized "action is important" in the success of the program. From what I saw on both campuses, the only thing resembling "down time" seemed to be while the next activity was being prepared. Their days are full, with academics, ropes course, recreation, work assignments, building/maintaining campsites, etc. 

The New Dominion program is based on the concepts originally developed by Campbell Loughmiller at the Dallas based Salesmanship Club starting in the fifties. What he found was that just taking kids with problems out camping in the country helped them learn discipline, responsibility, and teamwork. Adding skilled counselors and structure created an even more powerful constructive impact on the kids. 

Following Loughmiller's work, New Dominion developed a long term camping program, on property owned by New Dominion. Each student is assigned to be one of about ten to twelve students in each campsite. The buildings in each campsite are semi- permanent tents, which the students themselves have built, and maintain. This work of building and maintenance gives the students a sense of ownership and accomplishment that can be obtained in no other way. The campsites were well cared for, and the students' personal possessions like clothing were neatly folded and stored in foot lockers. My student guides were anxious to show me their campsite and their own personal accomplishments. 

When a student enrolls, they are considered pre-Crest, in which the student is in a very tight structure - closely watched - and their day is thoroughly planned in detail for them. When the student feels he/she is ready, he/she can apply for Crest, which brings more options and responsibilities, including starting academics, scheduling a first family conference which can lead to home visits, and entering certain restricted areas of campus. The transformation in attitude toward academics is amazing. Many new students are downright relieved when they first enroll and are told they do not have to go to school until they apply for it by applying for Crest. 

These new students insist they never want to go to school again, that they hate school, etc. However, after watching other students enjoying their classes and sensing classes are non-threatening, and feeling left out from what the others are doing and the privileges others are enjoying, all students sooner or later decide they want to go to school, and apply for Crest. 

Those that qualify for leadership are called Senior Crest. Not all students qualify, but these are the students who take on considerable student responsibility for making sure their campsite group functions smoothly and are allowed some interaction with boys outside their group. 

My impression of the classes was positive. Each Maryland classroom is separated by a four foot high partition, so all the classes could be seen at a glance (The Virginia campus is building an academic building on the same design), and all the activities seemed positive, along with all the students attitudes. Classes are small, something like four to six students in each class, and the teachers emphasize one-on-one individualized work, each student working at his/her own speed. The school is authorized to issue a diploma, though for some students it makes more sense to help them prepare for their GED. 

The teachers tend to coordinate their lesson plans with each other, utilizing approaches like Theme Day, in which all classes take some aspect of a theme that relates back to subject content. They also emphasize having the students work on projects, which would tend to make student assignments more real and less abstract. 

Dr. George McKenney, the Director of Education at the Maryland campus, said something along the lines that the school has everything the national education profession has been asking for - small classes, modern equipment like computers in the classroom, students who want to be there, etc., so he feels very lucky to be working in such a rewarding environment. My brief look suggests it is working very well. 

Copyright 1996, 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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