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Schools & Program Visits - AUG, 1995 Issue #35 

Visit by Tom Croke, IECA
Latrobe, Pennsylvania

I had the privilege of visiting Three Springs facilities at Paint Rock Valley and Courtland, Alabama, and at Duck River, Tennessee, in February. This was after considerable familiarity with the New Dominion Programs, which Three Springs recently acquired. I am not now addressing the Courtland program as it is not an outdoor program. Other outdoor programs in Georgia and North Carolina were not visited, but are part of the total Three Springs picture. 

The outdoor programs all target oppositional youngsters who are not psychologically complex. They do this through the management of the young people in a community setting in which they are responsible for the construction of and maintenance of their living environments, and life together in an open communication, consensus building environment. Ever present staff are not highly credentialed therapists, but are great role models and are highly skilled at facilitating growth through life experience. The students live in rather primitive campsites, with no more than ten or twelve to a group with very limited contact, if any, between groups. More detail on this treatment model can be obtained from the book The Wilderness Road, by Campbell Loughmiller (published by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, University of Texas, 1965). Both Three Springs and New Dominion are adaptations of the model advocated in that book. 

Although, legally this was an acquisition of the older New Dominion by the younger, faster growing Three Springs organization, there is a very practical sense in which this has been a merger. The three former owners of New Dominion have significant positions in the Three Springs organization and Three Springs CEO Mike Watson is relying heavily on them for direction in continued improvement in the Three Springs system. There have been no personnel changes at New Dominion as a result of the acquisition. Mike Watson deserves great respect for the respect he has shown the New Dominion programs. 

The outdoor facilities I did visit were all places I would be willing to refer, which provide excellent services for teens (and in some cases pre?teens) with behavioral issues which are not psychiatrically complicated. Over the years, I have come to believe that the Three Springs and New Dominion organizations have ranked among the highest level integrity and commitment to delivery of value for the dollar spent of any of the organizations operating special purpose schools. In the paragraphs which follow, I mean to make some useful comparisons, which the reader will hopefully understand as highlighting different examples of excellence. 

I have heard some consultants and staff associated with more traditional indoor special purpose schools express the opinion that Three Springs and New Dominion are generally for more difficult kids than the more traditional schools. I do not agree. Three Springs and New Dominion do a fine job with the full range of youngsters whom we might think of as oppositional. In general, the kids I have interacted with in these systems present less risk and seem less hardened than some I have met the more traditional structured boarding schools. 

Each of the programs has its own areas of excellence. 

The school at Duck River (boys only) is a model educational program worthy of imitation by any special purpose school which chooses the study center or group tutorial approach to schooling. The two women responsible for the leadership of that program are among the most creative educators I have known. A strong need to jump start education for a student who has not worked well in school might be a good reason to prefer Duck River within the Three Springs system. Duck River also has JCAHO accreditation, which facilitates insurance financing (as does the girls' program in North Carolina, which I did not visit). 

Paint Rock Valley (boys and girls in two separate programs) offers very strong specialty programs in Chemical Dependency, dealing with sexual trauma, and a ropes course. It has one of the more creative psychiatrists I have met, consulting and managing medications. In addition, with the exception of the programs for the younger age groups, Paint Rock Valley is almost all privately referred and financed kids. 

The historic Three Springs facilities have an elaborate levels system based upon Native American traditions. They work very comfortably with medications. Classroom work begins at time of admission. At the time of my visit, they were priced at $115 per day. 

New Dominion has a limited levels system, with the "knife privilege" (can use simple but potentially dangerous tools), the Crest (has bought into program and may attend classes and begin to earn home visits), and senior crest (interaction with out of group boys permitted, preparation for going home), being the major mile stones. New Dominion expects to wean boys off medications, but will allow medication at time of admission. The two New Dominion schools treat formal classroom education as an earned privilege granted after the boy has earned his crest. These programs are priced at $90 per day. 

The two New Dominion facilities, (MD and VA) have a staffing pattern and some principles of staff student interaction and overall care which to me are superior to anything else I have seen in longer term experiential programs. First, the front line staff is on duty five days and off two, yielding the result that each group of students is with both of their own staff three days per week, thus enhancing both teamwork and total coverage. If I were a staff member, I would feel less at risk of burnout in this system than in the shorter work week at the other Three Springs facilities, because of the ever present support from other staff in the New Dominion system. Second, there is a unique approach to teaching the boys to affirm and recognize each other's contributions, beautifully role modeled by staff, which I have not seen matched or duplicated anywhere else. Third, staff always participates in projects and work assignments along with the boys, never giving direction from the sidelines. Probably because of these staff practices and the supportive environment they create, a boy who earns an extra work detail as a consequence, is usually supported by another boy from his group volunteering to share the consequence. 

Although the two New Dominion programs are very similar to each other, the population in Virginia appears to me to be more diverse, than in Maryland, in fact the most diverse of the Tree Springs group. Of the approximately 60 boys at the Virginia site include at this writing, about half or more of them come from middle or upper middle class homes. These include both private clients which now represent about 1/3 of their total population, and a significant number of public school financed special education referrals, most of whom are of middle class or upper middle class background. The remainder is a fairly broad cross section of social service and other public referrals, including a handful of group responsive boys from inner city Philadelphia. It adds up to a culturally diverse mix which is well managed and whose diversity is an asset for all of its boys. 

The Maryland population is a bit more homogeneous. It includes both private, a small number of private referrals, and a larger number of publicly funded boys. Most of the publicly funded boys in both facilities (except the special education referrals in Virginia) are boys who have been adjudicated on a minor charge which would have led to probation for a boy from a stronger family background, but is instead placed at New Dominion for essentially social service reasons. The most challenging publicly funded boys in Maryland would be milder then the publicly funded boys in Virginia. The privately funded boys in Maryland, (especially the one I have referred) tend to be more challenging than the publicly funded boys on that site. 

Three Springs is one of the finest special purpose school organizations in operation today, able to accommodate a very diverse group of young people in range of settings. I believe that the degree to which educational consultants have considered only the Paint Rock Valley facility does an injustice to the other Three Springs facilities, although I, too, would prefer Paint Rock Valley for a boy or girl needing their special resources. I encourage all persons interested in special purpose schools to give this group a close look. 

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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