[A point of view from Dr. David A. Bouton, Head of School, Blue Ridge School, St. George, VA, 434-985-2811. Reprinted from The Ridgeline: A viewpoint from Blue Ridge School bulletin.]
This point of view addresses the issues in the recent article, The Trouble with Boys, by Peg Tyre in the January 30, 2006 issue of Newsweek. In reviewing the learning needs of boys, Ms. Tyre states, "Educators are searching for new tools to help tackle the problems of boys." At Blue Ridge, we have long been aware of what it takes to meet the academic needs of boys. In my view, the article validates the vision that Hatcher Williams articulated 44 years ago when he assumed leadership of Blue Ridge School-an unconditional commitment to the education of boys.
What follows are efforts we make every day to fulfill Mr. Williams' vision.
Boys Falling Behind
Ms. Tyre states that, "by almost every benchmark boys across the nation…are falling behind." We tend to attract boys who are overwhelmed or have dropped through the cracks in larger public or private schools where average teaching loads range from 80 to 150 students or more, with average class sizes of 16 to 30 or more. Our average teacher meets 35 boys per day. Our average class size is seven. Every boy in every Blue Ridge classroom is engaged by teachers for whom the operative word is 'learning' not 'teaching'.
Specific Learning Needs
The article states further, "Curricula have become more rigid. Instead of allowing teachers to instruct kids in the manner and pace that suit each class, some states now tell teachers what, when and how to teach." We have adopted a learning model that begins with competencies we intend for every Blue Ridge student to have by the time he graduates. Our curriculum is then backward planned each year and best practices are applied that combine the best of teacher-centered and student-centered learning methods and assessments. Our faculty tailors their instructional and assessment methods to the learning needs of our boys, not necessarily to those practices with which they are most comfortable.
Some boys come to Blue Ridge with specific learning needs. Other boys come to us needing help organizing themselves, with study skills, and/or with time management skills. Some boys need special assistance with reading, others with various aspects of numeracy. All of these boys are given personalized attention by trained experts in our learning center and/ or by qualified tutors on staff whose professional experience totals almost 100 years. These staff members constantly collaborate with the core subject teachers. With each boy, care is taken to nurture his particular needs in ways that cause remarkable changes in self-confidence and in academic performance.
Adapting Instruction Based on Recent Brain Research
At every opportunity, we expose our staff to recent findings from brain research that has virtually exploded over the course of the current decade. Whereas most girls display learning tendencies linguistically, musically and interpersonally, most boys tend to manifest their intelligence kinesthetically and spatially. In fact, the hardwiring in boys and girls is different. Boys struggle mightily with what it means to be a 'man'. We are keenly aware of these issues and structure both our curriculum and co-curricular activities accordingly. Even though they don't often admit it, boys love structure. We provide a disciplined life from the time they all have to rise in the morning until lights out each night. We explain to our boys the importance of a good night's rest, proper nutrition, healthy exercise, the challenges posed by all forms of drugs, and the life-long value in striving to learn. The boys attend class in coat and tie because we want them to understand and appreciate the fact that learning is important. They attend chapel three times a week because we want them to develop a personal spirituality while not promoting particular faith expressions.
Strong Role Models
The article states, "Psychologists emphasize that an adolescent boy without a strong male figure is like an explorer without a map." We routinely emphasize the importance of developing good habits of mind, body and spirit. Each boy is assigned an advisor who acts as his surrogate parent while he is here. Our boys have myriad positive adult role models (predominantly male) for them to look up to and bond with throughout their tenure here. Our adult community, most of whom live on campus, nurtures the boys 24/7 in all forms of athletics, the arts, outdoor activities, social activities, spiritual enrichment, as well as in their cognitive growth. We see our community as an extended family. You sense that from the moment you enter the campus.
We have high expectations for our boys, but we care for them and accept them as if they were our own sons or younger brothers. They know we have their best interests at heart. Each boy is asked to bloom where he is rather than on what they need. We help boys focus on what they need to succeed, to grow, to become exemplary spouses, fathers and citizens. Our Code of Conduct provides the moral compass by which everyone in our community-adults and boys-is guided each day.
24/7 Living and Learning
Our 24/7 living and learning environment provides Blue Ridge adults at least twice as much time to teach and mentor as their day school peers. We have example after example of how the Blue Ridge experience has proved to be life changing for so many of our alumni and even for men who did not complete their high school years here. Virtually 100% of our graduates go to college.
The article quotes neurologist Bruce Perry, "Very well meaning people have created a biologically disrespectful model of education." We pride ourselves in doing everything in our power to swim against that tide. We openly advocate for single-sex education and for the unlimited promise of boys. We use research to continually refine our model. 'Teaching Boys to Reach' their potential is and will remain our core reason in being. Give us the opportunity to change the life of a young man whom you know and care about.
Blue Ridge School is an all-boys college preparatory boarding school, grades nine through twelve. We serve young men who respond well to small classes, a structured environment and a strong sense of community. Blue Ridge School is located twenty miles from Charlottesville, VA, home of the University of Virginia. The campus, which comprises nearly 800 acres, lies at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.