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Opinion & Essays - November, 2001 Issue #87 

Touring Schools During Troubled Times

By Loi Eberle, M.A.
Educational Consultant &
Editor of Woodbury Reports

[Loi visited 11 schools in five days on the fifth annual Fall Tour of Vermont’s School and Colleges. The group of twenty-five IECA provisional and full members rode a tour bus through Northwestern Vermont that was effectively guided by Betty Levin. Each of the schools: Rock Point, Pine Ridge, Champlain College, Spruce Mountain Inn, Vermont Academy, Greenwood, Sterling College, Putney, Saint Johnsbury Academy, King George, and Landmark College, provided a warm welcome with great hospitality. A week and half later Loi visited Positive Impact in Bahia de Kino, Mexico to watch 17 of their students receive their U.S. accredited high school diplomas and to participate in their retreat with about forty parents.]

As a mother, I relate to the anguish I hear in the voices of parents who hire me as an educational consultant. In these uncertain times, the shock and anxiety arising from their child’s behavior is accentuated by the thought of sending their child miles from home.

Since September 11, the hardships experienced in other parts of the world were suddenly brought to our shores. Little over one week later, I boarded a series of jumbo jets to the east coast to visit eleven programs as part of the Vermont Fall Foliage Tour. Although I was very interested in seeing the Vermont schools, leaving my daughter at home, even with loved ones, during the initial stages of our national trauma gave me every reason to cancel my trip. The chance to see my son in Vermont for the first time since he left home almost a year ago gave me the courage to overcome my anxiety and board what seemed like a multitude of planes. Fortunately, it was a safe and informative tour. Less than two weeks later, it was harder to justify my reasons for leaving the country altogether to tour Positive Impact, a wonderful program in Mexico. In retrospect, I was so inspired by the therapeutic work I witnessed and the beauty of the area, I am delighted that I didn’t succumb to my fears and cancel my visit.

The anxieties I experienced while preparing for my trips gave me insight into what parents must go through when they consider enrolling their child in a program. It was an awareness of these feelings that caused program directors to ask whether our national crisis will affect parents’ choice to place their child in a residential program. In reality, it is never easy to send a child away. It is usually done when parents feel it is the only way to help pull a child out of a tailspin. In response to their questions, I found myself quoting Dr. Michael Conner’s remarks from his article, “How Secondary Trauma Impacts Adolescents In Residential Programs,” published in the September edition of Woodbury Reports [NL # 86]:

“…the behavioral changes associated with primary and secondary trauma following a violent traumatic event will occur regardless of whether a teenager is enrolled in a residential boarding school or remains in their home. There is every reason to believe that children will “weather” this trauma more successfully in a structured environment than they might if they returned to the environment that had led to their initial placement. Boarding schools, especially intervention and therapeutic programs, can offer structure, support and guidance at a much higher level than many families and public schools. Structure and guidance are recognized as key components in any traumatic incident stress treatment response.”

I was heartened at the variety of programs offering that type of structure and guidance in Vermont alone. Even though my visit did not include wilderness programs or residential treatment centers, the fairly narrow bandwidth of the programs I did see, presented a variety of options for students who are at least somewhat motivated to participate in their education.

I was pleased to be able to include Saint Johnsbury Academy, in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont to my list of possibilities for private education opportunities for low-income adolescents. Since the town is too small to fund a school, appropriate students attend this private boarding school as day students, funded by the public school system. They intermingle with boarding students from other areas, who appear to benefit from this diverse educational environment. According to my student guides, an honor code keeps the student behavior under control, and there seemed to be lots of evidence of student spirit, creative activity and good academics.

Champlain College in Burlington, Sterling College in Craftsbury and Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, although quite different from each other in terms of campus environment and course offerings, all were evidence of the excellent college options that are available for students who are motivated to find their own path. These schools also are clear demonstrations that once students have an understanding of their learning needs and styles, it is possible to find a college that will help them gain skills to achieve their career goals. Facilities ranged from a well-equipped media production complex at Champlain, extensive remedial language technology at Landmark, to international options for guided internships at Sterling College.

Pine Ridge School in Williston, Vermont offers students an individualized program in an attractive and safe environment to remediate math, language, social and athletic skills in preparation for college or vocational school. Greenwood School, in Putney, Vermont, helps young dyslexic boys both academically and socially. I was really charmed by these courteous young fellows, some in ties, some in tee shirts, who shared their feelings with me about the recent attacks. In the next breath they shared their excitement about their plans for constructing houses for their “village”. The “Game of Village”, co-developed by a Greenwood faculty member, is a practical application of math, social studies, science and other subjects that lasts for most of the school year. Each year a different period of history is selected for the students to replicate in the village. They build the dwellings to scale using the construction techniques and governing traditions of that time period and enact the village marketplace using miniature inhabitants they create.

For students who have found that artistic expression is an important part of their education, King George School in Sutton, Rock Point School in Burlington, and Putney School in Putney, Vermont all offer diverse opportunities to learn and gain skills. Of the three, King George School probably provides the most structure and support for students who recognize, perhaps begrudgingly, that they need structure to remain focused on their goals and perhaps are not yet strong enough to maintain the focus if left to their own devises. Although they might be frustrated by choosing a structure that precludes TV for example, the payoff in opportunities to study with a highly skilled faculty more than makes up for any apparent lack of freedom they may feel they are suffering. Rock Point School has recognized their students do well in their program if they have demonstrated that they are truly ready to leave their old behaviors behind. Both programs quite actively encourage ongoing participation in AA/NA if appropriate, and offer their students tremendous opportunities to discover and develop their talents.

Putney School has an interesting combination of activities as part of student life. A student might milk the cows on their working farm in the morning, and play jazz with top musicians in the evening. As a musician, I was very impressed with the music I heard, from the large student symphony and choir rehearsal, to the piano and bass jazz improvisation in the evening.

Vermont Academy offered a surprising range of rigorous academic and artistic courses and clubs as well as a variety of sports, including mountain biking, climbing and skiing. Students who excel at academics could find courses at the college level, while at the same time there was tutoring and a learning lab for students with learning disabilities. I met some highly motivated students, and found myself wondering how they could keep up with the schedules they described. I thought about trying to bottle some of their water to bring home, to see if it might help me…

Spruce Mountain Inn, in Plainfield, Vermont Inn was quite different from the other schools. This therapeutic community has adolescent and adult members who are in different phases of their education and therapy. Some residents stay for a relatively short period of time as a first phase in a therapeutic plan, others stay much longer, moving through different phases of the program and various living situations. Some live there and attend the local community college or work part time, some stay there to have some time out before returning to their former school.

All these programs were nestled in New England, famous for its idyllic countryside. It was a tremendous contrast in environment, as well as culture, to travel to Positive Impact, in Bahia de Kino, Mexico, where I visited a short time later. Actually, that is exactly what it’s director had intended it to be: a complete change of environment, away from the usual triggers and cultural expectations. It is truly a place to reflect and heal. While at Positive Impact I had the opportunity to attend a high school graduation of 17 adolescent young men who earned their U.S. accredited diplomas, and then I participated in a weekend parent workshop with about forty parents.

I was very grateful to see how these adolescent young men, several with some rather extreme acting out and/or substance abuse in their histories, had started to develop compassion and understanding. I was also heartened by the courage of the parents, both for overcoming their fears about enrolling their sons in this distant location, and for being willing to participate in difficult, but healing, therapeutic work.

Many parents told me they had been tremendously fearful of sending their sons to Mexico, yet because of their educational consultant, or the positive experience of their friends, they decided to choose this program. All the parents I spoke with emphasized how pleased they were with their son’s progress. I also spoke with various students who had been in the program for different lengths of time. Students who were in the program’s initial phases showed more evidence of resistance, though most showed signs of beginning to recognize the need to do their therapeutic work. Others, who had been there longer, for the most part, recognized the progress they were making.

There were a few students who, though compliant, had not convinced the staff that they had internalized the insights they were verbalizing. I watched how the program staff used various experiential processes to get beyond mere words. By blending experiential processes with cognitive and behavioral therapy, the staff helped the students feel, as well as understand. Sometimes spontaneously orchestrating experiences, they helped resistant students (and parents) begin to open up and express withheld emotions, apologies, and forgiveness. The staff also taught the parents about family systems theory, explaining that it was “not about a problem child, it was about a family with problems.” They explained that a child does not exist independently of the family; the healing work involves all the members. During the retreat, families participated in a shorter version of processes the students had worked on in groups with their therapists. The therapists helped the sons and their families sculpt their “family system,” and I could see many beneficial insights starting to occur.

Director, John Andersen, spoke with the parents about the process of change, explaining how it’s common for the students to have ups and downs in their progress. He explained, if they don’t step backwards from time to time, if it’s all perfect, then they are likely to be “fronting,” and he will “rock and roll” with them to determine whether the change is actually internalized. He also mentioned that it was a major red flag if kids are cocky about going home, with no concern about relapsing.

I spoke with a number of boys who either had, or were about to turn 18, who planned to continue in the program, since they felt it was helping them. The final phase of the program involves an individualized transitional step that enables students to gain volunteer and employment experience. In some cases the students live part time in the community. They also can earn college credits through correspondence courses through various programs including the University of Missouri, Indiana University, and University of Nebraska.

Once I had safely returned from my journey, I felt grateful and encouraged by what I had seen. I saw many courageous people who were willing to risk going outside of their comfort zone, beginning to reap the benefits of their good work.

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