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Schools & Program Visits - Nov, 1999 Issue #63  

Sutton, Vermont
Rebecca Plona, Admissions Director

Lon’s Visit:
October 12, 1999

This school visit was unique in that I had a chance to observe the students from the vantage point of being invited to guest-teach a US History class. Not only was it enjoyable to once again be teaching a college preparation course in a classroom; it also gave me a good feel for the student’s academic preparation prior to arriving at King George School. Basically, their experience in Social Studies was typical of most high school students throughout the United States; their minds were full of untested assumptions, value-laden conclusions, a few dry facts, and little ability to rationally support their opinions. 

They were typical of American High School students in many other ways, as well. I joined a Communication Class where students were wrestling with questions about their adoption, wondering how to feel about their natural and step parents, struggling with how to have good friends, trying to determine what is proper behavior, and dealing with other sensitive areas they would just as soon not talk about. This is pretty much the range of concerns you would find in any random sampling of American teenagers, if they opened up and honestly talked about what is really bothering them, that is. In this way King George students are no different than one would find at any other school in the country. 

The difference is that at King George’s school, they have positioned themselves to seriously discuss these very real issues. One of the keys to King George School’s success is the Communication Class, or CCs for short, which evolved from the kind of dorm meetings typical to most boarding schools. At traditional schools, the purpose of dorm meetings is limited to working out ways for everyone to live together fairly comfortably. This usually means dealing superficially with immediate problems, patching together something that will allow everyone to “get by.” A similar concept can be seen in home rooms at some public and private day schools. King George’s CCs takes the dorm meeting concept much further, dealing with anything that is interfering with a student’s success in school. For example, if students are having trouble making good friends, their loneliness will interfere with their comfort in the school community and will interfere with their studies, so it would be an appropriate issue for discussion in a CC. 

The fact that the school is serious about the expanded purpose of CCs is demonstrated by their frequency and their length: meetings last approximately three hours, taking place two times a week. To successfully lead a CC, a faculty member is required who can both act as mentor, effectively listen, have an intuitive feeling for what teens are going through in the process of growing up, and have enough common sense to see through manipulation, denial and pat answers. This approach is powerful enough to provide the extra help needed for students who were failing or barely passing in traditional schools, but of course would not be successful for a student with a serious pathology who needs therapy. 

Founder Linda Houghton is adamant that King George School is not a therapeutic school, and thus any diagnosis a child has is usually incidental to what she is looking for in prospective students. She well might agree with the assertion I recently read that “labels are the tools used by people with little education in the subject matter.” She sees King George School as a regular boarding school that accepts the fact all teens have mental, emotional and physical needs in order to grow up. Her vision is that as old institutions such as family, church and community weaken, something needs to replace them in order to help teens make the changes needed to become successful adults. She feels a new vision of boarding schools is necessary to help their students compensate for the increasing absence of one in the older weakening institutions. 

Part of what it makes it unique is that King George School looks for students who are passionate about something. The most common passion on the campus happens to be something in the arts, but it could be math, history, science, or even politics. The common denominator is that in their prior schools, students were unable to do much to fulfill their passionate interest. Here, it is encouraged and supported, thus all the students are willing to be there and quickly become aware of the benefits of being a King George student. 

I felt a real sense of safety while on campus, and part of it was the feeling communicated by the students that at last, they were able to pursue their real interests. Another factor contributing to the sense of safety came from the school’s structure; its consistency in its expectations and its ability to eliminate many of the perils of teen life elsewhere. For example, King George School is very serious about creating a drug free campus, something vital to having a “safe” school. While all boarding schools have anti-drug policies, King George School does what it takes to make it stick, including searching bags after home visits, drug screen tests, a high faculty-student ratio, and of course the tendency for the Communications Classes to foster honesty. Extreme imagery is not allowed, but by allowing a flavor of a style, the student can express his or her preferences while staying away from creating an image statement that overwhelms everything else about the student or shocks others. 

The school is on the side of a hill, and from virtually every direction there is a beautiful view of the hilly Vermont landscape. The original buildings ooze a sense of the past. For example, the old community church regularly used for school meetings has been upgraded for central heat and to conform to modern fire codes, but the tour guides point out where the minister of bygone days crawled under the floorboards to light the wood fire in preparation for the gathering of the congregation, and the wheel suspended from the ceiling that used to hold candles for light in an pre-electricity era. 

An ideal student for King George School would be a student who is floundering, or at least uncomfortable in the current school, who is perhaps acting out (or in) out of frustration, yet aware that there should be a better place in which to get on with his or her life. That this might describe a large percentage of American teens, is testimony that Linda Houghton seems to be on to something regarding her vision of what a 21st century boarding school should be, perhaps indicating that King George School well might be the prototype of a series of boarding schools under the Brown School North American Boarding Schools division. 

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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