NEW DOMINION SCHOOL OF VIRGINIA
Visit by: Jodi Tuttle, April 13, 2005
After about five years since seeing the New Dominion School of Virginia, it was wonderful to be back on the campus again. There is still a bit of a magical feel to the wooded campus as one walks along the paths leading to the student campsites. It truly feels like communing with nature, even though there is a school building, dining room, shower house and administration offices sprinkled throughout the campus.
New Dominion is a program for adolescents experiencing learning, emotional and/ or behavioral difficulties, at home or in more traditional school settings. New Dominion has two separate year-round programs, one serves boys and the other for girls. This program combines group therapy with school and experiential adventure-based outdoor services and activities. Students may participate in addiction recovery, abuse recovery and family life groups.
Students totally maintain the semi-permanent campsites they live in as well as the trails to the campsites. Although the students live in tents, each tent contains beds, a wood stove for warmth in the winter and containers to store their personal belongings. In addition, the students have a cooking area where they cook on a woodstove on weekends as well as other group meeting areas.
The student groups consist of about 10 or 12 members that allows them to become like a family, complete with an earth name based on native cultures. The focus of the program is on a positive peer model and group process problem-solving to help students take control of their lives. Through this model, students begin to realize their own self worth, while developing self confidence and becoming motivated to attend school.
Students must earn the right to participate in academics. When arriving at New Dominion, students begin experiential life skills training by participating in the daily routine of maintaining and improving their campsite, along with other outdoor adventures. When they earn the right to go to class, they begin by taking just one school hour a day and are required to earn the remaining five, one every four weeks, by demonstrating an honest commitment to their educational growth. Through this process, students begin to understand that school is a privilege that must be earned.
Academic plans are individualized for each student. Students meet with the teachers in very small groups, usually consisting of four to six in a classroom. The academic programs are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities (VAISEF) and the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps (NATWC).
At the center of the program is the Crest. This symbolizes "an outward sign of inward change." Students earn their Crest when they begin to recognize and understand their emotional and behavioral problems and demonstrate a willingness to deal with their issues in a mature and responsible manner. The staff teaches the students to understand that the Crest doesn't mean an end to their problems and issues, rather, it marks the start of their personal journey to becoming a more responsible, self-actuated person.
The hallmark of the Crest shows two youths: One seeks to overcome a struggle, while the other offers advice and encouragement based on having faced the same issues of struggle in the past. Nature is also part of the Crest with the trees and sky representing the wonders and beauty of nature, and mountains symbolizing the challenges that will await the person in his/ her passages of life.
The students shared their feelings for the program; most admitted to feeling an inner struggle when they first arrived due to the adjustment in lifestyle and the additional structure that they were not accustomed to at home. However, they were extremely proud of their accomplishments in keeping up their living quarters and improvements they had made to their campsites. The students had developed a positive attitude toward school during the time they had been at New Dominion and an appreciation for how much the teachers had helped them in their academic struggles.
The students attributed much of their success to the teachers and camp counselors who worked with them on a daily basis. The feelings of peace and contentment I felt in the natural setting of the campus stayed with me as I left the program. I can imagine the peace the students must feel as they head off to new beginnings.