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Posted: Oct 28, 2010 07:41


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Dillwyn, Virginia
Chris Yates

Visit by Candace Bynum, August 2010

My expectations of The Discovery School of Virginia were high given my knowledge of Chris Yates, Director/Co-Founder, and his long-term experience with at-risk youth. He and the other founders of The Discovery School (Don Williams and Allan Jacobson) have over 25 years of experience each in the industry.

There are two separate campuses, one for young men (which opened in 1998) and one for young women (which opened in 2007) totaling over 500 acres separated by only 10 miles. The campuses are beautiful and lush, as you would expect this time of year. The schools are located in the heart of central Virginia, with easy access to several of the state's largest cities and are within driving distance from Washington DC and Raleigh, NC as well.

The school works with boys and girls, ages 11 to 17 who are experiencing emotional, behavioral, and/or learning problems. Most students are experiencing ongoing frustration or failure in the traditional or other non-traditional academic settings, often due to learning difficulties, attention issues and/or other unresolved emotional issue. Frequently, students have histories of acting out against school and parental rules. The school does take children on psychotropic medications and has a consulting physician for medication monitoring and a consulting psychologist works directly with the staff.

Based on the concept originally developed by the Campbell Loughmiller's Salesmanship Club of Texas, the philosophy presents taking young people with problems out of their comfort zone and into the country, which helps them learn discipline, responsibility and teamwork. The addition of skilled counselors and structure creates an even more powerful constructive impact on these young people. Over the years, The Discovery Schools have developed a strong belief that long-term therapeutic camping is a setting that facilitates positive change. The owners and founders are actively involved daily in supervision and management of both programs.

I arrived on the Boys' campus first where Chris Yates greeted me. The young men were in great spirits; two students were graduating that morning and several other groups were preparing for "a night in town," accompanied by staff. Everyone was busy and excited.

One unique aspect of The Discovery School is that staff members do student assessments as the first phase of the program, similar to assessments done in a wilderness program. Each student is assigned to a campsite with eight to ten students. The buildings are semi-permanent tents that the students build and maintain.

My student guide at the Girls' campus was anxious to show me her campsite and her group's personal accomplishments. The building and maintenance of the campsites gives students a sense of ownership and accomplishment. The campsites were well cared for and the students' personal possessions, like clothing, were neatly hanging at the end of the beds. Each child had her own personal decorations and pictures as well.

Another aspect of the Discovery Schools is the focus on both the group and the individual. The primary task of the group is to provide for the most basic needs of the individuals, physically and emotionally, on a continuing basis. The primary task of the individual is to become and maintain one's self as a contributing member of the group. The Discovery Schools encourages the kids individually, and as part of a small family-like group, to deal with the non-negotiable tasks of living in a supportive community. The program works gradually, without a shock factor, providing the basic needs for the students (food, shelter, and clothing) and surrounding the students with a supportive community. When a student needs to be separated from the group, he/she will perform a work assignment with a staff member that proves useful to the entire group. Surrounding the boys and girls with positive relationships is never interrupted.

The Discovery Schools of Virginia are fully accredited secondary schools, serving middle and high school classes, as well as special education, remedial, and GED preparatory classes. They are licensed by the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Education and accredited by the Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities. Classes are small, averaging four to six students each and the teachers emphasize one-on-one individualized work, with each student working at his/her own speed. Although most of the teachers are special education certified, The Discovery Schools works primarily with children of average to above average intellectual abilities. They will accept a student with a lower ability to function on a case-by-case basis.

At the Discovery Schools of Virginia, attending school is a privilege. Students do not begin classes initially, but earn the right to attend a full school day by meeting therapeutic and academic goals. The school helps the student match college and future ambitions with the practical concerns that stem from personal readiness and family dynamics. The individualized academic experience is tailored to individual student needs. Every student participates in and receives credit for an integrated vocational curriculum. In special circumstances, the school is able to arrange off-campus internships with community businesses, based on the student's growth in the program. The average length of stay is 15 months, which enables students to catch up and get back on track academically and/or prepare for their college preparatory exams.

In speaking with the students on both campuses, I felt that they were genuinely happy being at Discovery Schools and had learned a lot during their time in the program. The children liked the feelings of accomplishment and pride they gained in working together, as well as building and maintaining their campsites. They explained that although they missed their families, they understood the needed separation, which allowed them to work on their relationship problems.

After my time at both campuses of The Discovery School of Virginia, I left with one parting thought; this visit did not disappoint my expectations.

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