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Schools & Program Visits - Feb, 1995 Issue #32 

A Little Personal Place
Rindge, New Hampshire
Anne Lewis visit: Aug. 10, 1994 

(Anne Lewis is an educational consultant living in Santa Barbara, California 805-969-2186) 

The Magic Eye greeting card with a repeated pattern of thirty small gray and white wolf faces and sixty intense black eyes stopped me. For a moment I felt as if I were back at Hampshire Country School where I met a student who loved wolves. It's a place where a boy's interests were taken seriously and promoted. He collected wolf posters with faces like the ones on the card, all of them wrinkled from being unrolled, studied, and lovingly rerolled. 

When I called for an appointment to visit Hampshire Country School, Admissions Director, Bill Dickerman, asked me to plan my visit late enough in the afternoon for him to be back from "taking students to the lake for a swim and picnic lunch." If this sounds idyllic, it is. The School's campus in southern New Hampshire consists of 1700 wooded acres with rolling fields and several large accommodating New England farm houses. Idyllic as it is, I found that the physical setting takes second place to the home-away-from-home atmosphere which has been created by Director, Peter Ray, Ph.D., Bill Dickerman, Ph.D., and the school's teachers and house parents. 

What kinds of students thrive at Hampshire Country School? According to Bill, "The School is for kids who may seem to need a therapeutic setting, but what they need is a little structure. It seems particularly well suited to those between the ages of 8 and 12. We've had success among elementary school age students, many of whom are bouncy, impulsive, hyperactive and have been wearing on other places. 

"Teenagers, those age 14 and going on 11, who feel socially awkward and overpowered, but who haven't hit adolescence have also flourished at the School. They aren't malicious or fighting for independence, but in a way are fighting for dependence. They want too much adult attention. This may show up with psychological problems, and the student easily can be misplaced." 

Director, Peter Ray, elaborated, "The School is not for delinquent or bullying kids. We do well with young kids, gentle, timid, afraid kids, kids who need parenting. Our kids are sensitive, often very sensitive to their own feelings, but at the same time unaware of the feelings of others. Hyperactive kids who don't stop long enough to think have done well here, as have kids with a school phobia or an obsessive compulsive disorder. 

"This School is preferable to having the child in a Special Ed room because these kids are too bright for most Special Ed classrooms. And they don't do well in traditional private schools because the element of pressure and competition at traditional schools is too much for them. The trick is not to completely eliminate pressure, but to get the pressure in the right amount." 

How do they do that? The program is small with plenty of attention from house parents and teachers. Students live in groups of four to six each with house parents in one of four houses on the campus. 

"Though not regimented to the degree that no chaos is tolerated, the student's time is carefully planned," Bill explained. "There is a definite schedule of activities with very little hanging around time." 

This may be true, but I was glad to observe four or five students with the freedom simply to enjoy reading books (the ones I saw are on recommended reading lists), to work on beading projects, or play with a houseparent's child. I also saw two students mesmerized by a program on one of the school's computers. 

What I found remarkable was the School's relaxed atmosphere and an apparent lack of any need for in-your-face supervision. It felt like a caring community where trust and genuine goodwill prevailed. 

Behavior contracts and charts which characterize more regimented approaches aren't used at Hampshire Country School. There is no formal therapy, and medications aren't given. 

This doesn't mean there isn't a keen understanding of the growth and development of young people by both Peter Ray and Bill Dickerman, a certified psychologist. 

I asked Peter and Bill how they define their success. Peter answered, "We're more realistic than many parents and many therapy programs. We don't think it is possible to get drastic permanent change. We don't look at kids as if it is a question of fixing a problem. We simply want to find the right place for the child. Some kids are well suited to little personal places." 

If this is the right place, most students enroll at Hampshire Country School for at least three years. What they receive is a well rounded education and social skills. The school has a challenging academic and athletic program partly because of the advantage of its setting: horseback riding, skiing, swimming, and hiking can all be a part of their daily life. 

At the end of the three years, students may continue at the School until high school graduation. Peter noted this is the safest bet because there is "only a slim chance of being kicked out." Some students may be admitted to other private boarding schools willing to put up with some idiosyncrasies or willing to stretch for one or two unusual kids. But, the school's goal "is not to return students to the kinds of school settings which may have proven unsuccessful for them in the past." 

By extricating the child from a setting where he or she hasn't flourished and settling into the Hampshire Country School, little miracles are wrought. Idiosyncrasies are tolerated and often become the seeds of the child's strengths. Bill told me that instead of directly discouraging a tendency toward perfectionism, which inhibits many students, he says, "It's neat that you want to do that so well. Let's figure out a way that you can." 

Before the visit ended, our conversation turned to Hampshire Country School's increased number of inquiries regarding admission. This seems true of special purpose schools throughout the country. My question was, "Why?" "We don't have much toleration for childhood," Peter answered. I can verify that Hampshire Country School is a little personal place with a large toleration for childhood. 

I'd like to go back and see the School this winter with the fireplaces all going, kids with faces flushed from tobogganing, and hear a performance in the upstairs Music Room. I'd like to see the boy who had just finished making a large almost perfectly inlaid wooden chess board in the school's woodworking shop. I can almost hear Bill saying, "It's neat that you want to do that so well." And, of course, I'd like to give the card to my friend who loves wolves.

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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