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Posted: Feb 2, 2006 09:28

Help Or Hindrance?

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By: Lisa Sinsheimer, Parent Liaison
John Dewey Academy
Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Two years ago, a new parent suggested that we start an Internet Forum to provide support and help for parents at our therapeutic boarding school, the John Dewey Academy (JDA). After overcoming initial concerns about confidentiality, the possible negative impact on live communication, and whether or not an online Forum might deteriorate into a destructive tool for disaffected parents or alumni, the Forum was set up on a trial basis.

Two years later, the Forum has evolved into an important tool for parents and alumni. It has changed the landscape of the school, but the primary purpose of helping parents help their kids get through the JDA program successfully has not changed.

Initially, we limited Forum membership to current parents; we debated the other rules of membership as we went along. We decided to exclude staff in order to allow parents to have freer discussions. Although staff can post information for the benefit of parents, they do not have access to any Forum postings.

We learned quickly that in order for the Forum to be relevant, EVERY PARENT had to join. If, for example, we wanted to use it for communication between staff and parents, every family had to have access to the information. The Parent Liaison relentlessly nagged each and every parent (and every incoming parent) to join and to log on frequently.

Almost immediately, we ran into several membership issues. What happens to a parent's membership when a student leaves the school prematurely? Should alumni be invited to join? Who decides if a member has abused the privilege and should be barred? Although we decided some of these issues by polling the membership, we soon understood that the Forum also needed administrators.

What role do Forum Administrators play? They monitor the Board, supply material, and function as gatekeepers by preventing disgruntled former students or hackers from gaining access. Although many members use the Forum purely for administrative purposes (i.e., accessing the school Calendar, Address List, or local resources), another-increasingly significant use is therapeutic and/ or supportive.

New parents arrive at JDA with lots of questions and concerns. The Forum is now the repository of vast quantities of experience and information which is readily available.

Administrators function as a driving force by initiating discussions about topics of importance to parents at JDA. Our three administrators are either alumni or current parents. These administrator/ parents function as role models by posting intensely private information about ourselves and their children. We believe that sharing encourages other struggling parents to open up and overcome their own shame and fear.

With the passage of time, parents and staff grew comfortable with using the Forum as a mode of communication. Of course, problems emerged. First, the students were concerned that parents were too involved in events at the school. Confidentiality became an issue as parents talked to their kids about information gleaned from the Forum. Of course one task at a therapeutic school is to improve LIVE communication between parent and child-NOT to remove the need to speak by virtue of internet communication. So we teach parents to keep the Forum truly confidential-between parents only.

Second, if the Forum was to be used as a communication tool, someone had to be responsible for the accuracy of the information. At JDA, the Parent Liaison was traditionally a current parent, which meant the person changed virtually every year. Now, the permanent Parent Liaison is an alumni parent who uses the Forum to reach more parents-thereby creating a deeper sense of Community.

The issue of membership continues to present problems here and there. We realized that we needed to figure out membership options for parents whose kids left JDA before graduating. We experimented with a variety of solutions, and currently, the Parent Liaison decides (in concert with the parents in question) when to shift someone from full membership to a more limited "former JDA parent" level.

We invited alumni in good standing (a crucial distinction) to join our Forum. Within a year or two, we had to invite our own children to join because they were now also alumni in good standing. Many parents had difficulty with the idea of their children eventually reading everything written about them during their stay at Dewey; but this turned out to be a non-issue. Indeed, alumni from the "Forum era" are valuable contributors.

We learned that a few willing individuals must accept primary responsibility for the technical aspects of the Forum as well as keeping the discussions current, real and civil.

The creation of significant content is crucial to making the Forum a bona fide part of the therapeutic process. We use a variety of discussion threads to strengthen the bonds of the online Community. For example, we have areas devoted to announcing student promotions and college acceptances. However, many more areas deal with less palatable topics such as expulsions and therapeutic consequences.

The development of an online Community requires trust among its members, some of whom have never met in person. The use of a specific person to direct matters is a huge asset in the development of this trust. At JDA, before the family arrives at the school, the Parent Liaison provides orientation and support: Thus, the Parent Liaison plays the role of a trusted peer advisor who explains the purpose of the Forum and welcomes the parents into the online Community. Once a new parent joins, he or she quickly discovers the value of having a 24/7 link.

The Forum has to be private-not discussed with staff or current students-but it must also include a STRONG and clear link to the staff and administration in order to ensure 100% participation by the parents.

JDA itself has also reaped a few unanticipated benefits from the establishment of the Forum. Dewey is a small institution without a large administration, so the Forum allows for more efficient contact with alumni.

JDA alumni say they have benefited as well: By maintaining online contact with the school, they stay in closer touch with the therapeutic principles they learned at JDA. Such contact is particularly helpful for newer alumni as they transition into the challenges of college life. Also, the Forum serves as a historical document and storage facility for information. Staff (via the Parent Liaison) can communicate more effectively and efficiently with parents and alumni.

In summary, we have experienced both administrative and therapeutic benefits throughout the extended JDA Community. At this point, the JDA Forum is no longer an experiment; it's a permanent part of the landscape.

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