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Posted March 25, 2003 

The Academy at Swift River
Cummington, Massachusetts
John Powers, Director

[Visit on March 4, 2003 By Loi Eberle, M.A.
Educational Consultant & Editor-in-Chief,
Woodbury Reports, 208-267-5550]

The Academy at Swift River is located in a lovely, rural part of Western Massachusetts, near the town of Cummington. Driving there, I discovered that the Swift River originates deep within The Academy’s 635 acres of forests, now deep in snow cover. Though I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find the school, I had been given good directions, and eventually I arrived at what was obviously a campus, with large, attractive, white New England style buildings on a hill, and a sign at the driveway. As I walked from the large parking lot on a very cold, but sunny day in early March, I passed some smaller buildings, while heading for the large building that housed the main offices, dining room and meeting rooms. Upon entering, I was warmly greeted by Ann Favre, Director of Admissions, who assured me that the lobby was not normally full of boxes, bags, and suitcases, as it was this morning, which I believed, given the tasteful décor of the building. This organized chaos was being created by the peer group who was in the process of bringing gear to the lobby as they prepared to leave for the five-week program of culturally diverse service learning projects in the rainforests of Costa Rica. Called Rio Rapido, the Costa Rica experience is the final part of ASR’s program.

I saw the excitement in the students who were preparing for Costa Rica. As I spent more time on campus, I also sensed excitement in the faculty and staff, even though most were not scheduled for this Costa Rica trip. Even though some faculty members do occasionally go to Costa Rica with the students, the excitement I witness was due instead to their sense of vision about the Academy. My visit occurred when the faculty was in the final stages of implementing a way to measure and communicate the progress being made by their students, using outcome-based objectives. When I spoke with the administration and staff, I was impressed with the overview they shared of the outcomes they hoped the students would achieve while in attending ASR. They define their goal as helping students “become well-rounded, motivated, and responsible individuals with the character and confidence to meet ethical, educational, emotional and social challenges, as well as to value the importance of service to others.” I was impressed with the way in which these attitudes and behaviors have been defined in measurable, performance-based outcomes. In fact, the tools that are currently being developed to measure and communicate about student progress will serve as a pilot project for the rest of the Aspen system. I obtained greater understanding about the scope of this project as a result of a meeting I was invited to attend with some of ASR’s staff and Dale Frederick, Aspen’s Chief Education Officer, who was on campus at the time of my visit.

Executive Director, John Powers, and Aaron Fisher, Coordinator of Special Learning Needs Programs and Testing, gave me an overview of the framework within which The Academy responds to special learning needs. ASR utilizes the framework developed by Dr. Mel Levine which focuses on the neurodevelopment of the student. Described in his book, “One Mind at a Time”, he helps parents and children identify their strengths and weaknesses to determine their individual learning styles. Forty of ASR’s faculty are scheduled to participate in future training sessions offered by Dr. Levine and will become certified in the “Schools Attuned” model. I also learned that ASR helps its students understand their particular learning style and the teachers will individualize instruction to accommodate moderate and sometimes severe learning differences. A variety of additional training sessions are coordinated and often taught by Jill Bentz, ASR’s Training Director.

Then I met with Peter Stevens, Dean of Academics, who draws upon his years of experience working with traditional boarding schools, and more recently, emotional growth schools, to create an environment where struggling adolescents can learn to achieve academic success. He and Matthew Hart, science teacher and Special Assistant to the Academic Dean, gave me an overview of the phases of their fifteen-month program. Although they have “rolling admissions” so that students can enter the program any time, they then enter a peer group who all graduate together, with graduations scheduled at various times throughout the year. Upon enrollment, students enter the Passages program, an outdoor experiential-based model, where they are encouraged to develop self-awareness, accountability, knowledge of their individual learning profile, and learn how to advocate for themselves.

Students must agree to attend ASR, and enter voluntarily; in other words, they cannot be escorted through the door by a transport professional. The degree to which students are willing to begin their work in some ways determines the length of time they spend at Passages, although the average stay is 32 days. Recently ASR has initiated a Transition Program after Passages, which the students attend during the first three weeks of campus life. This program helps the School gain important information about the students’ abilities, learning style and learning issues, from which each student’s Individual Academic Plan is formulated. Students also are instructed in classroom behavior and study skills.

Matthew then showed me around campus, where I saw the gym with basketball hoops and fitness center that is also available to students in the evening and weekends, the art studio, a variety of classrooms, the library, physical science and natural science labs and computer lab. It seemed like a good environment for reacquainting oneself with academic possibilities, after many students’ previous experience of failures.

I felt the administration was very open, even inviting me to sit in on and to ask questions at their weekly Student Services Team meeting. The SST meeting is a multi-disciplinary meeting. I met the clinical staff and learned they have the ability to monitor and work with students who are taking psychotropic medications, and are also available for counseling if needed. They discussed how they tracked students and how they responded to lagging academic performance. Once again I was impressed with the opportunities available to students who were willing to work within this environment.

They also have initiated an Alumni program, which initially was voluntary, but now is paid for as part of tuition. I spoke with TR Rosenberg, Director of the Alumni and Transition Services, who had helped develop the program. He explained that it consists of 48 calls to be used within the year, as a way of helping students transition back home, or to a more traditional environment, and a way to motivate the graduates to stay focused on their personal goals and the therapeutic work they had done while in the program. The phone calls, which take place with a counselor, are also a way to help parents learn how to support their child’s growth into adulthood and independence. Following graduation alumni and family workshops will be scheduled twice within the year. TR also spoke of their newly begun Step Down program where students hold jobs, live off campus, and continue their academic and therapeutic work.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Rudy Bentz, headmaster, who had a highly developed sense of ASR’s vision, and how it was reflected in the way they disciplined the students. Rudy also spoke about the community service work the students do in Costa Rica. During this last part of the program, the students participate in a number of service projects in the towns and game preserves, and are able to experience the deep appreciation the town people have for their efforts and the loving acceptance from the local children. Rudy spoke about how the students then work with their parents, who join them there, and how the parents describe how much impact this experience has on their life.

By the time I left, I had experienced a very full day, in a school that was actively working to improve the positive impact it was already having on its student’s lives. The students I spoke with seemed to have insight about how their behavior had been negatively impacting their lives, and they seemed not only aware that change was desirable, but also conveyed their belief that change was possible. ASR’s materials state: We believe that teaching by example is not merely the best way, but the only way, to show adolescents how to embrace responsibility for their lives as members of the human community. We realize that the balance and integrity which we strive to achieve among the emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual elements of our students’ lives must also be manifest in our own lives.” My experience with this program is that the individuals involved with this program also share and actualize these goals.

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