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Schools & Program Visits - Apr, 1995 Issue #33 

Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Dr. Thomas Bratter, President
Lon's Visit: November 14, 1994 

If you are into castles, European style, don't miss a visit to John Dewey Academy (JDA) in Western Massachusetts. Built about 100 years ago, the towering building gives a brief feeling of being transported back into the middle ages. This feeling is very brief, because the bustle of 1990s kids is apparent everywhere. This serves as a reminder that the real essence of Searles Castle and JDA is very modern, and very oriented toward children succeeding. 

The housing is very unique, but it seems to contribute to the students feelings of being unique and special. Our tour guide (my wife Denise accompanied me on this visit), took us from the basement to the third floor of this edifice. He relished showing us all the nooks and crannies, and hidden passageways, and twists and turns. Actually, the building is a child's dream of exploring and imagining events and life styles of days gone past. And, despite it's 65,000 square feet of living space, it has the look and feel of a comfortable lived in place. 

Tom Bratter's mission is to prove that much more can be done for children with intellectual potential whom society has shunted into dead-end situations such as hospital psych wards, special education, etc. Most of his current student body of about 45 boys and girls had been on medications, and frequently came to JDA straight from hospital programs. Many of his students had been judged as hopeless cases by the system. Understanding the depth of Tom Bratter's commitment to this mission is vital to understanding JDA. It is also vital to understanding what you are seeing while there. 

The kids look good. Usually, when I visit a program, I can get a rough idea of how long a student has been there by observing their eyes and faces. New kids eyes tend to be glazed over, have a hard time looking directly at anyone, and their faces seem pinched. Those who have been there long enough to internalize the program and it's safety have clear eyes, look directly at people, and the faces are more relaxed. 

At JDA this didn't work. I had a harder time estimating at a glance if a student were a new student or an old student. I had to watch their behavior for awhile and listen carefully to what they were saying and how they say it to make that estimate. This suggests several things. First, it might be a partial reflection of their admissions process where the applicant must convince the students and faculty of a desire to enroll and make some changes (To JDA, it can be acceptable if external pressures like probation officers or the parents putting pressure on the kid has got them to this decision point). Not the best reasons to base a commitment on, but it often works. This would have the effect of screening out some of the more resistant prospective students. But that is at most only a partial explanation. It also suggests that something happens very quickly at JDA that taps into each child's deepest hope for their future. It seems that the sense of safety, care and support effectively touches the students very quickly. Perhaps part of it is the rigorous academics that for the first time allow the student to be challenged mentally. 

Part of it is the staff. Bratter has hired personnel with the combination of being able to effectively interact with the students, and with very impressive academic credentials both in subject area and in psychology (A large percentage of the staff have their Ph.D.s or are working on them.). 

The most obvious part of their program is the academic orientation. Part of Bratter's mission is to take very bright kids with potential who are failing. He challenges their mind (often for the first time) through rigorous academics equal to any secondary college prep school in the country (several educational consultants have made this assertion to me). The result is the students learn that the challenge of rigorous academics can be very satisfying, and that it is still possible for them to get back on track toward fulfilling their potential. This is a strong element creating hope that it's not too late. 

The school is run very democratically, with the students views given a great deal of weight. In addition, the students take on much of the responsibility of the operations of the school. Each student has a job with a responsibility level high enough to challenge them without overwhelming them. This includes cleaning, picking up the grounds, preparing meals, etc. All of this is under the supervision of staff, but all students feel an ownership in the school because in a very real sense the smooth operation of the school depends on the students. This is a major part of each student learning self-discipline, responsibility and accountability. The democratic philosophy fosters a certain amount of controlled confusion of course. 

It goes further. Students are fully involved in decisions of who is to be accepted, expelled, or promoted from the new students sub-group to the mid-level sub-group, to the upper level sub-group. This includes sub-group demotions if a student's behavior indicates they are not earning the privileges that go along with membership in any specific group. Some of the senior students told me that the sub-groups are really the heart of the program since most decisions regarding students come out of the discussions and interaction within those sub-groups. Incidentally, those sub- groups are largely self controlled by the students, although with influence and the right of ultimate veto by the staff. 

I had the opportunity to watch this in action while I was there and was allowed to sit in with a group interviewing a prospective student and his frantic mother who were there for their initial interview. Tom Bratter directed the discussion, and several staff were there, but any student who had an interest in this particular student was encouraged to sit in the session. The ones who did had very good questions and suggestions. There was feedback from students who felt this applicant was just like they were before they enrolled at JDA, and were offering to take the applicant under their wing and help him if he enrolled. The next step was based very much on the reactions of the current students and if they felt that the prospective new kid would fit in. 

No discussion of JDA could be complete without looking at Tom Bratter's role there. In the past, and as the founder, it was almost like Tom Bratter WAS John Dewey Academy. This seems to be changing as other staff have taken on more responsibility and as Tom Bratter has backed off and supported them in that. Still, Tom Bratter's vision and presence still permeates all aspects of the school and its mission. It is obvious that Tom Bratter is crazy about his kids, and will accept nothing less than the best they are capable of. He will also do anything to support his students having a chance at accomplishing those dreams he thinks they have earned a shot at. In the process, he has stepped on many toes and irritated many people, so to say he is controversial in many quarters is an understatement. He has taken on the Federal government, and won. He has taken on colleges who are cautious about enrolling his graduates who didn't have the usual perfect academic record before JDA, and got the child enrolled. He has taken on parents whom he thinks want to protect and coddle their children or who resent his bluntness, and often won. He has disagreed with educational consultants regarding one of his students, and often won. 

One result of this firmness of opinion is the students almost revere him. They feel Tom Bratter is firmly backing the student's best side and best efforts, and that he will accept nothing less from them. This might be scary to a new student, but one mark of a student's emotional progress is for him/her to mature to where he/she can challenge Tom Bratter on something and have his/her act together well enough to convince Tom Bratter and/or the other staff to support them. This is significant because the students know that support of this type is never freely given. 

So, if you have a bright young adult who is failing, who has some inkling that there might be something better in life, and has parents who can withstand straight and sometimes blunt talk, and if you are willing to work on Tom Bratter's and the schools terms, JDA might be the best way for the young adult to turn their life around and get on with it. 

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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