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Schools & Program Visits - Dec, 1995 Issue #37 

Scott Cantor, Admissions Director
Dahlonega, Georgia
Lon's Visit: August 11, 1995 

The best term to describe the physical layout of Hidden Lake Academy would probably be "nestled." An hour drive north of Atlanta on a narrow two lane road, you definitely feel "in the country." Although the campus consists of 200 acres of rolling meadows and trees, the focus of the school is the buildings strung along both sides of a paved lane, which runs on the top of a low ridge lined by trees overlooking the 14 acre lake. In a way, the lake is an important part of the program. It is used not only for boating and fishing, but as a backdrop for important conversations along its shores, exploring and defining motives, hopes, resentments and responsibility, in a natural and scenic setting. 

There is a sense of safety on the campus, which is obvious from watching students "strolling" along the lane, and their relaxed acceptance of strangers. The property is conducive to that sense of safety, of course, but the sense of safety I felt can only exist by a staff and program that recognizes and is successfully meeting the basic emotional needs of the students. Students hurrying to meet a tight schedule were not detracting from that sense of safety, nor was the bustle of work on the new academic structure. By looking at the students, the picture was of a program that was working. 

Hidden Lake Academy was specifically founded in 1994 on the theories and principles of child growth and development of Erik Eriksen, Abraham Maslow, John Dewey and others. Headmaster Rudy Bentz, working with Director/Founder Dr. Len Buccellato and drawing from these various sources, laid out the stages children go through in growing up. They then filled in the details based on their many years of experience in working with struggling teens. In a very real and practical sense, Hidden Lake Academy could be called a manifestation of the best available thinking on child growth and development. 

The school is co-educational, and the focus is on teens who have been "demonstrating oppositional and defiant behavior and are making poor life choices which are limiting their full potential." In other words, these kids would be a handful in any less structured setting. The eighteen month program is divided into five stages. The first four are approximately four months each, with the fifth stage usually taking two months with the goal of consolidating and internalizing the whole experience. The overall goal is to teach the students how to examine all options before making life decisions, so they will be able to make better decisions than they were making before coming to the Academy, as well as prepare them for further academic achievements. 

Headmaster Rudy Bentz pointed out their experience in the year since the school was founded confirms what Eriksen and others predicted. As a student successfully completes the goals of one stage, he/she is naturally ready to tackle the challenges of the next stage. For example, the objective of the first four-month stage is self- awareness, and deals with the key issues of trust, hope, doubt and shame. When a student has successfully come to some kind of resolution on these issues, he/she starts working on self-renewal issues, sometimes before the staff is even aware the student is making the transition. Self-renewal is the objective of the second stage and focuses on the issues of initiative, acceptance, guilt and failure. Looking at it with common sense, it is fairly plain that a child cannot really start working on self-renewal until there is at least some self-awareness. 

The daily life of the students is full. There is little free time, as is necessary for kids like these who missed some of the basic issues in growing up. Hidden Lake utilizes most of the tools that have been found to be effective in making a positive impact on children who have been oppositional and defiant. The first three stages have a wilderness experience, each one being longer and more intense than the preceding one. Each student has both individual and group counseling, called Realizations, which are focus topics looking especially at the key issues of the stage the student is in. Each stage has a Workshop, a multi-day group experience designed as a culminating activity for that stage. Then of course each student has his/her responsibilities (jobs) which are designed to teach responsibility and allow students the satisfaction that can come from work, as well as seeing that necessary work is done for the smooth functioning of the school. Academics not only follow state guidelines, but are also keyed to the stage each student is in. As a result, academics are individualized, flexible, related to their other activities, and allow remediation as well as enrichment, depending on what is appropriate for each student. 

Educational consultants love to compare and categorize schools, and in conversations I have been involved in, Hidden Lake has often been pointed to as an East coast version of some well known West coast schools. Some even take that further and conclude that Hidden Lake evolved out of the staff and experience of those older schools. Leonard Buccellato is emphatic that Hidden Lake is it's own creation and did not evolve out of another system. 

There are, however, some understandable similarities. For example, Hidden Lake and other schools do work with similar types of students. Dr. Buccellato points out that research and experience have shown that any successful school that works with similar students will have to have some similar elements. For example, for kids with these behavior;/emotional problems, two groups a week is not enough and four or five groups a week would be too much. Consequently, to be effective, any school would settle on three groups a week. In addition, culminating workshops are most effective about every three to four months to have maximum impact. So, he concludes, any similarities are surface only, and when you look deeper under the surface at Hidden Lake, you will find significant differences from any other schools. 

One of the major differences is in program length, which at eighteen months is shorter in duration than some other schools. Dr. Buccellato explained this was planned in order to avoid the program dependency some students have developed in other programs. Therapeutically, the cognitive needs of the child are addressed as well as the emotional growth and development. Another unique feature of Hidden Lake Academy is its emphasis on staff credentials. Counselors hold a minimum of master's degrees in various therapeutic disciplines and/or come to the Academy with solid experience in the field. Teachers hold baccalaureate or graduate degrees and are certified, some in the area of special education. Teachers and counselors work together in teams to implement the insight-oriented curriculum which helps students achieve the highest level of success possible, both academically and emotionally. 

After Len and Rudy taking me through the founding and philosophy of the school, I tend to agree: Hidden Lake Academy is unique and it's own creation. It is not a new configuration of another older system. I had a chance to visit with the two students I had referred to the school, and I was pleased with their progress. Good things are happening there. It is a good place for struggling teens. 

Copyright 1995, 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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