Visit by Lon Woodbury Feb. 4, 2010
Fieldstone Academy is not a program for troubled teens! The population they serve are teen age boys who are struggling in school, or perhaps floundering would be a better term. Their students have a history of either being bright but unchallenged and thus bored in school, perhaps an undetected learning difference, or a distracting chaotic home situation. Some will have behavioral problems, the ones that go away with proper academic challenges. Regardless of the cause, these boys are underperforming and do not need specifically therapy, but respond well to an academic challenge in a well structured and caring scholastic environment. They are reluctant to enroll a student brought by a transport agent, and they screen out boys with serious behavioral problems or serious diagnoses. What they have are boys who respond well to a male environment which includes physical activity and a strong academic challenge. In other words, they focus on working with boys who have scholastic problems more than behavioral problems.
Richfield can easily be described as being in the middle of nowhere. A three hour drive south from Salt Lake City or north from St. George, with 8-10,000 residents in the county, it is the population center of that part of the state. Just from their location, temptations are obviously kept to a minimum.
After a slight diversion from my GPS (which often has troubles with rural areas), I finally found the school which was in the middle of transitioning into expanded quarters. As of my visit, classes and offices were on the second floor of an office building in the middle of downtown Richfield. Expectations are they will expand into the main floor also which will give them more valuable space.
After meeting four Forsythes (it's basically a family business), I met a group of the boys who were just finishing up a music session. They all stepped forward to introduce themselves. All their handshakes were firm and they all had good eye contact and were open and friendly. The atmosphere was comfortable with a good sense of safety that I felt throughout the afternoon of my visit.
After a quick tour and introductions, I found myself in a classroom where a math class was just starting. It was a typical class size with only six boys. During class the teacher would periodically describe some mathematical concept for all the students. But most of the time each was working on his assignment for the day. Any time the student had a question, he would get the teacher's attention and help. Each student was working on his own individual education plan at his own unique level. The students in the class were fairly relaxed, engaged in their lessons and seemed to have a positive attitude toward the class and the subject.
Some were working on paper and pencil tests, but most were working from handheld calculators. The teacher showed me how they worked. Math, being an easily sequenced discipline, can be programmed into steps from the first basic addition and subtraction concepts through to calculus. The hand held computers had tests of increasing difficulty, and each student would bring up the step he was on and take the test. If the results were less than spectacular, the teacher and student would go over what concept might have been missed. This process would be continued with subsequent versions of that material until the student showed mastery and could move on to the next level of difficulty. The entire time I was there, the teacher was constantly busy with student questions, and it was obvious each boy received more individual teacher attention than would be possible in a regular classroom. In this sense, the teacher acted more like a mentor or facilitator who spent time on precisely the confusions each student would have, instead of the broadcast approach of typical classrooms which consists of presenting material while hoping it meets the needs of at least some of the students.
I sat next to one student who expressed satisfaction at his progress that day and then took some time to visit with me. He was dressed in a tie, slacks and a vest coat with a pocket watch, explaining that he liked to "dress nice." (Did I mention that a mildly "quirky" boy would be appropriate for this school?) He told me he was graduating this year and was looking at some trade schools where he could learn about computers. We discussed the various options, the difference in mission and options of trade school vs. college and a number of other subjects. He was open and friendly, contributing to my sense that the students had a good feeling of safety in the school. He also explained how poorly he had been doing in his previous school, especially in math, but that at Fieldstone he was up to grade level and doing well. Along with that was his sense of satisfaction at finally mastering something he knew was important (academics) on which he had previously done poorly.
The school owns a ranch outside town where the boys spend a lot of time doing repairs and caring for the animals. I couldn't visit that part of the school during my visit since it was snowed in from a recent storm and virtually inaccessible at the time except by snowmobile. However, it was explained that the ranch is used year-round and is great at sucking up some of the masculine energy of the boys, and for many, spending time on the ranch is one of the highlights of their experience at the school.
This is one of those intriguing schools that I have to come back to during warmer months to more fully experience the physical activity part of it. Anybody who has worked with boys or young men knows physical activity is vital for males.