Visit Reports 

Educational Consultants helping parents and professionals since 1989.

Free eAlerts

 For FREE updates... 
enter your email
address and click


Type words to search for, then click GO.
Online News
Site Links

Posted April 12, 2003 

John Dewey Academy
Great Barrington, MA
Tom Bratter - President

[Visit on Mar 4-6, 2003 By Loi Eberle, M.A., Educational Consultant & Editor-in-Chief, Woodbury Reports,, 208-267-5550]

A description of my first night in Great Barrington, Massachusetts at the John Dewey Academy (JDA) explains why this program is unique, and why, as is always the case, it is not suited for everyone. Yet, after visiting from Tuesday night to Thursday afternoon, I decided that for the “right” student, one who can respond to high expectations and high levels of stress, it offers some exciting, even life-giving opportunities.

When I realized I would be arriving later than anticipated, I was out of range, unable to call until the JDA staff had left for the day. Upon finally getting through on my cell phone, a student informed me that only the students and a house parent were there for the evening. Though that particular student was not aware of my visit, he told me not to worry, they would have a room ready for me. Finally arriving after 9pm, I somewhat gingerly opened the unlocked front door, trying not to gawk as I entered the Searles Castle, yes, an actual castle. I walked across the beautiful marble floors past two sculptures of lions that seemed to be guarding the entrance leading to large arched windows and filigree ceilings. Shouting hello, I was met by friendly and courteous students who carried my gear and helped me get settled.

The entire student body had been upstairs in an all-school group that was just ending. I was invited to join one of the three groups scheduled to start a little later: one for the newest students, one for intermediates and one for the senior students who were mentoring newer students. Although I was told a faculty member was present somewhere, I never met that person. Yet the students all knew what to do, and were doing it, holding groups, following the rules, and attending to their responsibilities. The intermediate group I attended discussed the challenges involved with earning enough trust in one’s driving skills to be allowed to be one of the student drivers. It was not an easy process: one student had been trying for months, very aware of the responsibilities associated with this privilege, especially since the roads in the area were sheets of ice that day.

During both nights of my visit, though apparently unsupervised, the students ran their scheduled groups with members actively participating, being guided by the older students. I also attended an all-school group during the day that was facilitated by the faculty/counselors who drew from a number of therapeutic techniques: confrontation, peer-self help, group and individual psychotherapy, as well as behavioral strategies and supportive nurturing. I was surprised by, and impressed with, the level of the student’s therapeutic work; apparently they realized it was necessary in order to be able to successfully remain at John Dewey. My clients’ experiences had given me the prior knowledge that neither JDA students nor faculty will tolerate dishonesty, denial, or even long-term use of prescribed psychotropic drugs, if a student wants to successfully graduate. That evening, at the appointed hour, the students continued to work on the issues that had come up in all-school group, even though the teachers and therapists were no longer present.

The students demonstrated a strong sense of accountability and honesty, probably the only way that this type of environment could work. JDA President, Tom Bratter, and Ken Steiner, their Dean, reminded me that these students were drug addicted, suicidal, oppositional, resistant adolescents until they were “maneuvered” and convinced that cooperating with the JDA program is in their best interest, for a variety of reasons.

I attended faculty meetings, a student council meeting, a class, therapy groups, and an interview of a prospective student. They were very open about how they operated, inviting me to sit in on interactions that gave me some insight about the balanced “team work” approach of the staff. While Tom Bratter, has a powerful personality, vision and direction, both he and Ken Steiner point out that it would be a very different program without the equally important and highly regarded administrative/clinical/academic staff. Ken describes himself as “an opinionated and active professional, who often differs with Tom,” which I perceived from the interactions in the faculty meetings, but Tom was very quick to communicate his respect for Ken, acknowledging the importance of Ken’s role in providing a good “counter-balance” for Tom.

All the interactions I had at the John Dewey Academy reflected a similar theme; the students and faculty were about academic success, integrity, and in the words of Tom Bratter, “upward mobility”. What was unique was that these discussions were occurring among students who had nearly lost their chance for this goal to even be a remote possibility. Many had serious drug problems, psychiatric hospitalizations, and legal charges in their past. Tom spoke of some who most likely wouldn’t be alive if they hadn’t enrolled at JDA, which was affirmed by students I spoke with when I was there. I would compare the backgrounds of these students to some of the most extreme stories I’ve heard at other programs. The difference here, however, is that JDA can then supply the names of many prestigious colleges where JDA graduates have successfully attended and graduated, often with honors. In fact, they claim that 100% of their graduates attend, and more than seventy percent graduate, from college.

Everyone I spoke with at JDA was enthusiastic about being challenged intellectually and academically, and indeed, the academics there were highly rigorous and time consuming. There was a tremendous focus on acceptance by competitive colleges, combined with the acquisition of the necessary skills to perform college-level work. Perhaps the students’ value of academic excellence and their determination to overcome their past was one of the reasons they for the most part carried out their responsibilities without overt opposition. I realize that some old behaviors would rear up at times; certain old patterns are hard to break and sometimes temptation was too hard to overcome. Since this is a voluntary program, some students do choose to leave, returning to the streets and their old pastimes. Tom Bratter makes no bones about this, letting students know they can leave at any time, even providing them bus fare, if they aren’t willing to follow the demands of the school.

The role of parents in motivating their children to stay at JDA is recognized and a very active and supportive network has been encouraged. It is what has enabled parents to hold the line with their children, giving them the choice of either keeping their commitment to JDA, or walking down the road, without the benefit of parents’ emotional or financial support. The parents play a vital role in coaxing their resistant and angry students to accept this voluntary placement, by limiting their child’s choices. Of course, it is a lot easier to discuss in theory than it is to put into practice during a moment of crisis; thus the importance of the parent network. JDA parents occasionally meet in the city for dinners, and stay in touch by telephone, email, and senior parent retreats, becoming somewhat of an extended family to the other students as well. When I spoke with parents about this network, they considered it to be crucial for their students’ success at JDA. Not only does it support the parents in holding the line with their children, it is essential for motivating parents to do the difficult therapeutic work needed to create a healthy family system.

Some students become closer friends than others, but they all conscientiously mentor the newer students, understanding their difficulties. These new students have been accepted after being interviewed in a direct, no-nonsense way about the work required, as well as the rewards that can be achieved, if they enroll. They are confronted about their current level of denial, which could be a potentially painful experience. In contrast, they are offered a meaningful and rewarding education, access to college, intimate and close friendships, personal responsibility and the freedom that results from participating in a student-governed community with the ability to earn privileges such as going into town. Once students have survived this rather grueling enrollment interview they live in the community for a period of time to decide whether they will stay and make a commitment to the program. Tom Bratter claims that if a student will commit to this program for two years he will get them into a high quality college, and their graduate’s acceptance list, appears to bear this out.

But in order to get in and successfully graduate from John Dewey Academy, I feel a student must be resilient, with a strong sense of self. Bratter has tremendous insight and ability to work with very resistant behaviors and attitudes, but part of that process involves what some might call brutal honesty, and offensive language. While some argue that those who do not succeed are traumatized by the process, others would point out these students already had traumatized themselves before arriving at JDA, and at least they have been given an opportunity to attend colleges that were previously unreachable. I asked about what tools and strategies the students were offered to help them deal with the tremendous pressure to study and succeed. Kathy Blackburn, the new dean of students, responded that in addition to providing good nutrition, frequent suggestions for classes and activities that encouraged stress reduction and relaxation were offered, but most of the students did not show much interest. I suspect that the frequent group therapy sessions help the students dissipate at least some of their frustration, though at times, probably create some aggravation as well, even if part of their healing process. As students earn trust, they have the opportunity to go off campus, and are involved in many local service projects, which also help relieve stress and probably enhance their self-esteem.

Prospective families should fully understand the nature of the John Dewey environment and the types of interaction and pressure to which they would be subjecting their child. It certainly is not for everyone. Yet, if students have the ability to succeed academically, and are able to get in touch with a desire to do so, there is every opportunity for that to happen at JDA. I was very impressed with the therapeutic staff, who also taught academic classes. Gwen Hampton, therapist/Spanish teacher, seemed to have tremendous insight about each of the students, giving me the impression that little, if anything got past her in terms of noticing student issues. Ken Steiner was quite talented both in administration as well as in therapeutic work with the students. I sat in on one of his lectures for his Western Civilization class, which was by far the most interesting I’ve ever attended. Though I didn’t speak with the other faculty members, most have advanced degrees, and have been with the school for a number of years.

Despite the harsh words and painful truths that students experience during group and in individual interactions with the staff and students, I experienced a tremendous amount of compassionate concern by everyone there. In fact, I was very moved to see the students at John Dewey attaining what had once seemed like an impossible dream, given their histories. Yes, it certainly is not for everybody, nor should it be. Part of its magic is due to its small size, and exclusivity. But I felt the exclusivity stems from the recognition that only those with the ego strength, aptitude and motivation to achieve the dream of academic success would be suitable candidates. I felt the doors were open to all who wanted to seriously give it a try. Part of the student’s motivation stems from their parents’ persistence and boundary-setting, but some of the motivation also comes, I feel, when students realize the opportunities that once seemed lost, are once again available, as a result of the very capable guidance by the JDA staff, and their own diligent effort.

PO Box 1671 | Bonners Ferry, ID 83805 | 208-267-5550
Copyright © 1995-2017 by Strugglingteens,LLC. All rights reserved.    Privacy Policy