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Schools & Program Visits - Mar, 2002 Issue #91 

Davis, West Virginia

Visit on January 22, 2002
By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

Alldredge Academy is the most philosophically based program for struggling teens that I have encountered. I think this is the reason why several educational consultants and parents have had a hard time really understanding the program. To fully comprehend what Alldredge is doing, it is important to realize that founder L. Jay Mitchell has thought deeply about the nature of human beings, and has developed ways to impact children based on principles that he has formulated about human nature. Not bad for an attorney, which was his profession before he helped found the SUWS program in the early 1980s, and more recently, Alldredge Academy.

L. Jay Michell’s view of human nature is essentially spiritually based, incorporating the idea that humans have free will and can learn to make better, more altruistic choices, rather than being solely the products of their genetics and environment. He integrates current research about how children learn, which includes findings from brain research for example, to help children develop their ability to make life-enhancing choices. It seems it would probably take a book to explain the reasoning behind all the multitude of activities the children do during their stay at this school, and in fact, they have recently presented their philosophical approach at the annual conference of the American Association of Behavioral and Social Sciences, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in February 2002.

Students typically stay at Alldredge Academy for three months. Their stay is divided into three distinct phases, each being approximately one month in length, depending, of course, on the progress made by the individual student. The reasoning behind that length of time was that many children need more than a three-week wilderness intervention, but they do not necessarily need a full year at an intensive emotional growth/therapeutic boarding school. After the three months at Alldredge some graduates go back home and many go on to traditional boarding schools, having received sufficient emotional growth and therapy intervention at Alldredge Academy. Some of the students, who need more intensive structure and therapy, do go on to long term emotional growth/therapeutic boarding schools and programs. The Academy management feels that for many parents, this approach can save them money, and it provides the least restrictive environment for the students.

The first phase is their wilderness program, which lasts approximately one month. It is heavily influenced by concepts recognizable from the SUWS wilderness program: the Search and Rescue skills. The emphasis is on developing altruistic attitudes as opposed to what the school sees as a seemingly dominant attitude of hedonism that is prevalent in mainstream society. Students are taught to think in terms of applying Virtue and Mission to the school, and ultimately, the home environment. Another part of this phase are the “Directions,” which are a virtuous philosophy of life, not so much a program as a way of being. The Directions pave opportunities for students to connect to the Source for inspiration and decision making. While I was there, the group was doing what we call a solo. Each child was warmly bundled in his or her own tent, continuously within sight of staff with almost a one-to-one staff- student ratio. The students were encouraged to reflect on what they had learned so far. During this phase the administrative staff gathers information about the student, including past records, which is used in developing an Individual Treatment Plan. In the last three days of this phase parents are invited to parent workshops and visits with their children.

The second prase is the “Village,” which is situated on a bend of a river. The focus of this phase is to encourage students to more deeply explore themselves. At first sight, the village has the appearance of an aboriginal community that might have existed at that spot several centuries ago. Wood heat is the main feature of the central “communal” building. The sleeping quarters are the yurts that are all constructed by the students. The days are filled with outdoor activities involving the river and the surrounding woods, and of course, keeping the “Village” functioning. An interesting part of the students’ experience at the “Village” involves being given the materials to make their own Congo drum. Constructing and learning to play the drum seems to be an important theme for their stay there. Part of the school’s perception is that music is one of the few commonly shared human activities that requires extensive activity in both hemispheres of the brain. Having the students perform music fosters their ability to communicate both verbally and nonverbally. Another advantage is that it requires a student to recognize parts of him/herself that might have otherwise been totally ignored. The student can use this enhanced self-knowledge to develop more skills in self-discipline. One way the students’ accomplishment is measured is through the graduation requirement that student must have learned something that cannot be put into words. The thinking here is that verbal facility is primarily a left hemisphere brain activity, so the requirement for a student to demonstrate his/her non-verbal abilities requires skill development involving the right hemisphere of the brain. The “Village” phase also includes an intensive parent workshop, much of which involves the students, who also perform a drum concert for their parents.

The third phase of the program involves the school. In this phase, the goal is to continue the emotional growth work begun in the earlier phases, while emphasizing academics to make up for time away from academic activity in the earlier phases. The school and dorm buildings are situated on the side of a hill overlooking the majesty of the surrounding countryside. By this third program phase, the school has gathered a good deal of information about each student, both from previous schools reports and by assessing individual learning styles, strengths and weaknesses. So the student is able to move rather quickly to master academic material. One idea that evolved from their views about learning is what they call, “Levels of Education”. This perhaps could be described as levels of understanding. Starting with the “Literal”, the depth of a student’s understanding increases as he or she moves into “Symbolic”, then “Mythological”, then, what they call “Energetic”. Obviously the necessary foundation for developing the students’ readiness to expand their academic understanding was built during the two previous phases. By this third phase, the students are more ready to apply themselves academically.

I observed that the students in all the various phases looked good. The students in each phase looked better and more self assured than those in the previous phase.

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