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Posted October 27, 2003 

Halifax, Virginia
R. Grant Price, M.A., Dean of Admissions, 434-476-2406
Kelly Dunbar, Assist. Dean of Admissions, (off campus) 434-572-4496

Visit On June 24, 2003 by Loi Eberle, M.A.

Carlbrook School is located a little north of Virginia's southern border, yet the elegant well-manicured lawns and lovely stone historic buildings of the Carlbrook campus definitely gave the impression of being in the south. From outward appearances, Carlbrook looks like a traditional boarding school, but my interactions with the staff and students assured me that in addition to being academically rigorous, this co-ed boarding school also focuses on emotional growth.

I met Kelly Dunbar, the Assistant Dean of Admissions, at the entrance of Carlbrook's Administration Building. She led me past a series of offices and attractively decorated rooms with large windows, to an elegant porch. A large fan gently spun overhead, making it quite comfortable on this already hot day, as we settled into an over-stuffed wicker chair to observe the greenery through the screened windows. She explained their mission and student profile while we waited to be joined by Grant Price, the Dean of Admissions.

I asked Kelly why successful graduation from a therapeutic wilderness program is a prerequisite for enrollment at Carlbrook. She explained the main reason they require wilderness is because students needed a "shared experience of public accountability,” which I felt was an excellent description of a powerful process. She went on to explain how wilderness helps the students become more focused and motivated on the work ahead, and more importantly, it acts as a "filter." It tests their mettle, in a sense, to ensure that only students who “present profiles suggestive of a successful experience at Carlbrook are the ones selected to matriculate on the campus."

Since Carlbrook is a relatively new school, I asked about its origins. Kelly named the founders and deans of this school: Timothy B. Brace, M.A., Dean of Students, Glenn F. Bender, Ph.D., Dean of Academics, Justin J. Merritt J. D., Dean of Faculty; John Henson, M.B.A., Dean of Administration, Jonathan Gurney, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., Dean of Advising, Jason L. Merritt, M.D., Consulting Physician and Grant Price, M.A. Dean of Admission. Three of these seven had directed emotional growth programs, and four had been successful graduates from various ones. They had collectively dreamed about creating this school for quite awhile, and eventually solidified their plans and located this property, with its elegant buildings and large grounds, which seems a perfect location.

When Grant joined us on the porch he talked about what it was like to run the school with this team of directors. Grant laughed about the length of some of their meetings, which sometimes were heated discussions between those who had been former directors and those who were the graduates of previous schools. They would closely examine the vision of emotional growth education in theory, and then would hear feedback about what parts of it had actually been effective in practice. Not only were these directors' credentials and backgrounds impressive, upon meeting them, I found them to be very likeable people.

According to their marketing materials, Carlbrook seeks to recruit: "bright, underachieving adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18 who have been challenging convention and questioning authority." Kelly and Grant further elaborate this profile, explaining that they will enroll students who are experiencing difficulty in the academic mainstream, having personal difficulties or challenges at home. They do not accept applicants who exhibit psychiatric features, are court adjudicated or legally entangled in any way.

The academics are described as demanding, and they are in the process of staffing the school with the quality of faculty who can support student success. When I visited they had 89 students and 34 faculty members with Masters, ABD or PhD level training, with plans to eventually have a fifty member faculty. Their academics are traditional, with roundtable discussions, and they offer some advanced placement classes, including three years of Latin. Grant explained they are eliminating some textbooks in the humanities classes in order to cultivate reading primary sources. They also are working towards fully integrating their academic program with the counseling component of their school.

Their educational model involves the integration of "academic excellence and character development." They also provide cognitive, insight oriented therapy for the students, with three group therapy sessions per week, along with individual therapy and thematic workshops, that include such topics as "Choices: Living Your Dream or Living Your Lie." They consider their program to be different from what is usually considered to be an emotional growth curriculum. They introduce the concepts earlier in the program, and have what they call "vertical" peer groups, so that they have a variety of levels of student seniority together in one group. Their approach, they explained, is not to break down students' defenses before building up their sense of self, but instead, they prefer to help their students look at "what's getting in their way of being who they really are."

After our conversation, Kelly showed me the dorms and drove me around the campus to the various classrooms. Many of the classrooms are temporarily in modular buildings until the construction of the large classroom building across the meadow is completed. The teachers and students in each classroom I entered greeted me warmly, and all the students came over to shake my hand. This was relatively easy, since the classes were between five and twelve students each. The students were polite, smiled, and made good eye contact. The teachers would take a moment to describe what they had been doing in class at the point of my interruption. I was favorably impressed by the level of energy in both the teachers and the students, as well as their apparent interest in what had been going on in class. They all seemed to acknowledge that the school was in the development phase, and spoke about where they were heading in their plans for the academic program, as well as the physical campus.

Carlbrook enrolls what they describe as "lighter and brighter kids" in this voluntary program, which is reflected in their level of structure. For example, they have one person monitoring the entire student phone bank, which offers some degree of privacy. The students are able to save their emails on disk, though only the teachers have Internet access. Their dorms are large and open, with a number of students in a room. They are still in the process of developing their program guidelines. For example, they have learned that they must search all the student's possessions when they return from a home visit. Eighteen-year-old students are sometimes involved in community service work off campus, and they are contemplating allowing more involvement with off-campus activities. Grant explained that some of their ideas are still evolving, for example, they are still determining what to offer for extra curricular activities. They need to make sure they are not diluting their academics so they can create their program in a way that colleges find will meet their academic requirements.

During lunch, the students ate outside, enjoying a little fresh air on the patio before their next class. I sat with three young men: a junior and two seniors, one who was about to graduate. The college application process was a large topic of conversation; in all reality it was the primary reason they were there. In fact, Grant had even referred to the school as "transcript repair". The older student had been accepted at his college of choice, so he was pleased. The younger student was taking seven classes to make up his junior year, and was feeling that the one hour of study hall he was allowed per day wasn't enough. When I asked staff about this, it was pointed out to me that the teachers were often available for tutorials, and that there weren't many distractions from having enough time for schoolwork. I wondered if that was case for all the students, since it was, after all, a coed school, though their counselors stayed in fairly close contact with the students, I was told. Since there was a larger proportion of males, it was possibly the females who had the greatest likelihood of being distracted.

Certainly there is a lot more structure at Carlbrook than in traditional boarding school settings, but less than I find in many of the more controlled emotional growth school settings. My conversations with Carlbrook staff gave me the impression they are pretty clear about who they will accept for enrollment, and for the profile they describe, their level of structure seems appropriate. As long as the student also has transcript repair and emotional maturity as a goal, this is a very wonderful place for the students to do their work. If the students lose sight of their goals, there is a good deal of therapeutic and staff support to help the students get back on track. To remain successful at this school, they must be motivated. A key component of that motivation is the students' future educational goals, and these need to be in place, at least in part, when they enroll.

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