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Opinion & Essays - July, 2002 Issue #95 

The John Dewey Academy
A Residential, Therapeutic, College Preparatory High School

By Ernest A. Collabolletta, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist,
Certified School Psychologist (Scarsdale H.S., Scarsdale, NY)

Fax: 914-761-2563

Controversy still swirls around The John Dewey Academy after more than one and a half decades, much of it generated by ignorance about the effectiveness of the use of caring-confrontation technique used in psychotherapy. What many fail to recognize is that is that is that traditional psychotherapeutic and educational interventions have failed miserably with the students who attend this unique college preparatory high school. Residential care is the only option for these at risk, alienated, self-destructive young people. Anything less becomes a band-aid approach to healing wounds that require surgery. One third of the students have been institutionalized at least once prior to attending this academy. Seventy-five percent arrive addicted to potent psychotropic medication prescribed by psychiatrists, and ninety percent have been diagnosed to be ADD or ADHD. Most have been diagnosed as having borderline personality disorders or oppositional defiant disorders. As such, many have self-mutilated, have demonstrated major problems with impulse control, have been drug dependent, or have eating disorders. All are narcissistic, Manipulative, and deceitful.

My intent is not to defend The John Dewey Academy with “psychobabble,” but rather to present statistical results which I believe make it a most effective educational-treatment program. From its inception, director, Dr. Tom Bratter, remarks that the academy should be “judged by the reputations of colleges which admit our graduates and their performance in those institutions of higher learning.” The list of colleges which have admitted John Dewey graduates make it indistinguishable from the most elite prep schools! One hundred percent of its graduates attend competitive colleges. More than two-thirds graduate from college. Approximately twenty-five percent achieve academic excellence by making the Dean’s List at least for one semester. Twenty percent seek graduate degrees. A truly impressive statistic is that less than fifteen percent feel the need for additional psychotherapy or pharmacology.

Bratter always has maintained that given its confrontational environment, this school is most effective for angry and gifted adolescents. These youngsters are those who will succeed best in this environment because when convinced about the wrongness of their ways, will change and become productive human beings. This is a most stressful program as the expectations for improved behavior are most ambitious and continually increase and challenge the individual to better and more productive behavior. The lofty therapeutic goal of the institution is to nurture the psychological, moral, social, spiritual, and integrity of the individual and to create the conditions necessary for the adolescent to regain self-respect. Adolescents need to establish stable personal identities while concurrently learning how to form positive interpersonal relationships. Each student has a primary counselor whose caseload rarely exceeds thirteen students.

Group therapy is the primary therapeutic approach. There are at least four two hours groups per week conducted by credentialed therapists whom the adolescent can relate and peers with whom they can identify. The peers offer insight and suggestions that provide the catalytic conditions necessary for self-exploration and change. Not only does the group insist that the members accept responsibility for self destructive behavior, it also helps to resolve intrapsychic and interpersonal problems. Approximately one third of the time is devoted to therapeutic interventions. Students participate nightly in a one-hour self-help group.

The dropout rate is less than twenty percent, which Ken Stainer, the Dean who eventually will be Bratter’s replacement, attributes to the school’s aggressive efforts to involve the family in the treatment process. If a student chooses to leave, Bratter rejects exiling the student to the streets but instead works with the family to find the adolescent another residential program, because the school is committed to forcing the student to “grow up”.

At least eight times a year, parents participate in three two-hour group experiences. In the first group the parents introduce themselves and discuss their concerns. In the second group, which is intergenerational in nature, members are separated so they elicit help from others. The third group is a mother’s and father’s group where discussion focuses on role-related problems. When there are sufficient siblings, there is a brother-sisters’ group.

Both interesting and significant is the fact there is little staff turnover. Most staff members have doctorates. A majority of the faculty have been at the school for at least a decade. The newest two teachers whose tenure is three years, replaced two who retired after spending twelve years.

What is controversial is that the John Dewey Academy rejects psychiatric labels, psychotropic medication, and uses confrontation as an effect therapeutic tool to initiate change and promote positive growth and mental health. Since their success rate is so high perhaps they are right and other more traditional programs are wrong. It is with conviction that as a psychologist and educator, I do believe that for the “right kid,” there is no better school.

If you would like a copy of my article that deals more in depth about the John Dewey Academy, feel free to contact me.

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