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Posted November 7, 2004 


Rick Reamer and Deborah Siegel
Pawtucket, RI

Parents of struggling teens typically agonize about finding the “right” school or program. They sort through mounds of data – from educational consultants, school directories, pamphlets, promotional videos, websites, campus visits and conversations with school staff – before settling on what they hope is the right choice.

We’ve been there. During the spring of 2003, we spent countless hours combing through every morsel of information we could find about an overwhelming array of school options. We knew our child did not need a therapeutic boarding school. We simply needed a school that offered structure; consistent, humane supervision; a positive peer culture; constructive emphasis on personal accountability and integrity; and a willingness to collaborate collegially with parents. We did not seek perfection, realizing that those who do will always be disappointed. We followed the sage advice offered in The Woodbury Reports (December 2000) issue about the “ten most common mistakes parents make” (e.g., “We want a place close to home.” “We want something affordable.” “We want our teen fixed.”). In short, we dotted our “i’s” and crossed our “t’s” – or so we thought.

At the conclusion of our conscientious search, we enrolled our child in The Hyde School in Woodstock, CT. From the outside, Hyde appeared to be the right choice. All of the information about the school flashed “accountability,” “family involvement,” “structure,” and “integrity.” That’s what we wanted.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we got – at least not in the way we expected. What we experienced over the course of a year – and we recognize that families experience the school quite differently – taught us an overarching lesson: Sometimes critically important information about a school can be known only from the inside, particularly from parents and students (and candid staffers) who have walked the halls, sat in on classes, witnessed teacher-student interactions, participated in seminars, hung out on the athletic fields and really breathed the school’s air. We’ve learned that glossy brochures, promotional CD’s and videos, telephone communication, visits with administrators, school tours, and discussions with educational consultants who visit a school for a few days, may not be sufficient. In short, there may be more to the school’s story than initially meets the eye and ear.

We learned a lot this past year about how to search for the right school. We learned that our child’s school had strengths that served us well and that we want to replicate in our child’s next school. True to its promotional material, the earnest and dedicated staff at Hyde emphasized accountability and structure. Both students and parents received consistent messages from staffers about personal integrity and responsibility. We embraced those messages wholeheartedly.

But we also learned concrete lessons about looking for “red flags” that may lurk beneath a school’s promotional material and information available to “outsiders.” Here are the five lessons we learned from our Hyde experience about choosing a school:

Lesson #1: Carefully scrutinize a school’s admissions criteria and standards. Explore whether the school’s student body matches the description in the promotional material. Only after we became involved with Hyde did we learn that it accepts an unusually high
percentage of applicants, compared with other boarding schools, and that, as some Hyde administrators say, the vast majority of parents send their children to Hyde to be “fixed” or “turned around” because of their child’s misbehavior, substance abuse, defiance, academic underperformance and so on. The fact that the school accepts nearly everyone who applies undermines the school’s ability to manage its students’ diverse, complex and special needs effectively.

Lesson #2: Compare the school’s approach to adolescents’ issues with widely accepted research-based knowledge. Ask questions about staffers’ familiarity with the latest research on adolescent development and brain chemistry, the impact of enforced sleep deprivation on adolescent behavior and academic performance, and the most constructive ways to handle emotional and behavioral challenges that adolescents pose. In our experience, many Hyde staffers were unfamiliar with, or dismissed, prevailing research-based theories and practices for helping struggling teens. We found a dogmatic adherence to what’s called “the Hyde process,” even when the process wasn’t working.

Lesson #3: Find out how staffers treat students and parents. Observe how staffers communicate and interact. Are they tactful, clear, direct, honest, humane, constructive and civil? Only after witnessing many Hyde personnel interacting with students and parents did we realize that, contrary to prevailing educational and mental health standards, name calling, shaming, intimidation, judging, minimizing and humiliation are embedded in the school’s belief system and practices; these emotionally abusive behaviors are used frequently and intentionally (although not by all staffers). For example, in seminars composed of complete strangers, intimate self-disclosure is demanded. We heard students under this pressure reluctantly disclose, with intense emotion, sensitive information about their mental health issues and trauma histories, only to be called “manipulative,” “drama queen,” “quitter” and other pejorative epithets. In our view, this constitutes verbal and emotional abuse and models poor interpersonal boundaries and communication skills.

Lesson #4: Find out who at the school handles students’ mental health issues. While at Hyde, we discovered that many of the school’s students have psychiatric diagnoses (such as depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, ADHD, PTSD). We were surprised that a school that enrolls so many students with these special needs has a nurse on staff to dispense medication but no licensed mental health team. We subsequently gathered information from a large cross-section of traditional boarding schools and discovered that the typical school, including those that do not aim to serve “struggling teens,” has licensed mental health professionals on staff. We gradually came to realize that Hyde tends to view mental health issues as “character flaws,” not as medical conditions that require research-based interventions. Hyde’s decision not to have a licensed counseling team is deliberate, not an oversight; it reflects Hyde’s belief system and model.

Lesson #5: Find out exactly what the school means by “family involvement.” Hyde’s materials trumpet their focus on the family. In actual practice, however, while parents are required to attend many family seminars, they are also explicitly instructed to stay out of the loop, “let go” and let Hyde do its thing, and ignore their child’s feedback about their Hyde experience. Staff communicated with us about our child rarely and superficially. Parents should look for a school that invites parents’ feedback, responds to it and engages in respectful dialogue.

Finding the right boarding school for one’s child is a daunting responsibility. In the absence of inside information, parents understandably rely on professionals’ recommendations and schools’ promotional material. What we have learned, through trial and error, is that much of what parents need to know to make informed choices can only come from inside the school. Parents need to be wary of schools that have a doctrinaire, “one size fits all” approach and are unwilling to hear respectfully communicated differences of opinion. Try to talk not only with parents who are pleased with the school, but also with those who have had unfortunate experiences there. Finding those parents is a challenge.

Copyright © 2004, Woodbury Reports, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(This article may not be reproduced without written approval of the publisher.)

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