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Posted August 26, 2003 

Montcalm School
Albion, Michigan
Norman Ostrum,
Dean of Students, Director of Admissions
(517) 629-5591

[Visit on July 10 By Ethna Hopper,]

I drove through the gates at Montcalm School with a sense of wonder at the serene expanse of lawns and graceful trees, and amazement at the plethora of buildings, graceful architecture, and the sculpture installations everywhere.

When I arrived at the school, situated on the shore of the natural lake from which the school takes its name, wonderment gave way to admiration! As I began to talk with the administrator, various teachers and staff, I felt that serenity prevailed: each person I met projected a calm and professional manner. My strongest impression was that Montcalm and its surrounding community, the Starr Commonwealth, is a kind and lovingly structured place. There is no haste or hurry, no pressure, no competitive edge—just a place where boys can find a better way to live their lives.

Starr Commonwealth is a 350-acre community founded by Floyd Starr in the early 1900’s. A native of England, Starr’s vocation was to provide a healthy place for underprivileged, deprived and boys in trouble—to grow up. He developed his Commonwealth over many years, serving the social needs of juveniles from many states. It was he, and not Father Flanagan of Hollywood fame, who said and is often quoted: “There is no such thing as a bad boy!”

The programs of the Commonwealth are intact, but the Montcalm School was founded only a couple of years ago by a board that was facing the inevitable cuts in funding that the rest of the country has been experiencing. There is a capacity for at least 29 boys, ages 12 to 18 at present, who have social difficulties, problems with parents, substance abuse issues. Some of their students have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome with accompanying behavioral difficulties. The Board is also considering the establishment of a Montcalm School for Girls, using existing girls’ programs as a model.

What is different about Montcalm School is that they are open to serving a very broad range of students: some may indeed be emotionally impaired or have threatened suicide, perhaps with secondary drug and alcohol issues, and some may have exhibited self-injurious behavior such as cutting. They are willing to deal with allergies, even serious ones, and children who are physically handicapped (although they are not a barrier-free campus.) They are about to enroll a youngster who is hearing impaired. Montcalm draws the line only at actively homicidal or suicidal behavior, or the primary diagnosis of addiction. Montcalm sees itself as an appropriate placement if a youngster has not succeeded in another residential program, and applying the philosophy of Mr. Starr, it provides young men with a structured environment where they can begin to be successful, where “change can occur from the inside out”.

Touring the very large campus is best done in a car, accompanied as I was by Norm Ostrum, Dean of Students and effectively, Director of Admission. As we drove and talked, I observed the many other boys who are resident at the Commonwealth, courtesy of the courts in their home states. These youngsters were lively, friendly, and very open and agreeable with the staff and to this visitor. As we moved around the campus we visited the gym with its Olympic sized pool, handball courts, and of course basketball. We stopped in at the lovely little chapel, built to duplicate the church in Mr. Starr’s home village in England. Most surprising of all, we visited the museum on the campus, heard the recording of Paul Harvey telling “the rest of the story” about Starr Commonwealth, and viewed the many mementos of the program’s history and growth.

Several very salient aspects of the Montcalm program must be noted. First, they use a peer culture counseling approach. There are five group meetings a week, but individual therapy is available as needed. The group leaders are at a minimum of a Master’s level in counseling with each group having 10-12 boys. The approach is nurturing, not confrontational, and school is very much a part of the therapeutic setting.

The daily routine is very structured. Boys live in cottages in groups, and each group has a Family Worker who is the liaison between the child, therapist and the family. The cottage is always staffed, day time counselors and night time awake staff. The treatment team consists of the lead therapist Dana Richards, the “youth specialist” (a counselor) and a teacher.

Cottage life for the boys, including those in the Montcalm School, is active. They do the food preparation (under supervision), clean (very well) and each student takes a turn doing the laundry for the whole cottage..

There is a module of sport every day, with a great gym as needed and all the outdoor activities –canoeing, swimming, ice skating and skiing— one could wish for, including fishing in the lake!

There is a teacher for every cottage, and all the classes a youngster has are taught by that one teacher. I observed two classes in the Montcalm program; even though it was a “one room schoolhouse” situation, it was orderly and pleasant, bright and big enough that all the students had sufficient distance from one another. The object is that each youngster will learn “at his own pace” but the program is better developed and supervised than some I have seen, due to the special ed background of the school head. I also visited the school building of the Commonwealth, which was dynamic and alive. The Director of Education, Patti Hiatt, is a special education person long employed by the public school system. Mrs. Hiatt is just wonderful. Her empathy for the youngster who has so consistently been beaten up by school was refreshing to hear.

Montcalm has had a fair amount of experience with Asperger’s Syndrome. As educational consultants know, a common dynamic in these families is that the child and mother become “enmeshed” and the father becomes distant. Often in adolescence the balance shifts and the child is angry that he is unable to separate from the mother whose over-protectiveness is both smothering and enticing. At that point the school frequently cannot handle the behaviors the child exhibits and neither can the parents. Montcalm welcomes these youngsters with the goal of helping them to develop care and concern for others, and a measure of independence from both parents. They are, in fact, considering development of a post-high school program for 18 year old Asperger’s Syndrome young people.

Montcalm has a consulting psychiatrist who is on campus once a week, and can deal with students on medications of varying types. The staff is trained in physical restraint, “life space crisis” intervention, working through to lessen the crisis. Even though the campus is very open, one-half mile from the interstate highway, runaways are most infrequent. It’s easy to see why. As I drove away from the campus to make the one-hour trip to Detroit airport, I reflected on Mr. Starr’s oft-spoken dictum: “Beauty is a silent teacher.” Everything about the campus and the people at Montcalm teaches much about what is good and loving in life.

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