First Impressions of RMA-2
Lon Woodbury MA. IECA. CEP
Everything you hear is opinion, everything you see is perspective.
Attributed to Marcus Aurelius – 2nd Century AD Roman Emperor
I was living in Spokane Washington when I was first introduced to a new kind of “school.” I had been a classroom teacher for a few years in the 1960s and was looking to get back into education. In August 1984, I drove to Bonners Ferry, Idaho to apply for an open position at Rocky Mountain Academy (RMA), a new school just opened and affiliated with a sister school, the better known CEDU School in southern California founded in 1967. Starting with a three-day interview that included my wife Denise, I realized if hired I would be in for a different experience. Little did I realize how different. I had taught in public schools for a few years, but the preparation there for what I was going to go through at RMA was minimal. Some of my previous experience in public schools had been in Alternative Schools, whose students were similar in many ways to the students at Rocky Mountain Academy. Usually referred to as “troubled teens,” I eventually preferred the term “struggling teens.” I was hired as an Admissions Coordinator for RMA (later Admissions Director) starting later in August 1984, and what became an exhilarating and rocky 33-year adventure started.
My previous experience teaching in public schools seemed only vaguely related to what I saw happening at Rocky Mountain Academy (RMA). First, RMA was a school designed for teenagers with behavioral/emotional problems who were making poor life decisions and were, in many ways, their own worst enemy. The goal for RMA was not to work with young people with serious mental health diagnoses but focused on the larger population of young people who could be described simply as “regular kids who have lost their way.” These are the ones who could be described as entitled, overly self-centered, experimenting with drugs (not addicted), bored, rebellious or maybe “failure to launch”. Second, RMA was a boarding school, so the students would be exposed to the school environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 2 ½ years. Third, it could vaguely be called a “whole child” curriculum.
The curriculum emphasized emotional growth, physical development, experience with nature (wilderness) and academics. It was also a “parent-choice” approach for enrollment instead of the frequent requirement at the time of mental health or legal professionals doing the referring of problem children. The school leadership resisted the term “residential treatment center,” insisting RMA was a school, not a treatment center. Psychiatric medications were not allowed at the school at the time, even well accepted medications like Ritalin. Their idea was to work with kids who didn’t need medical type mental health treatment, but whose behavior was very self-destructive. In addition, they insisted that if a student was on mood-altering medication, the school would never know if at any particular time whether they were working with the student or with the medication.
RMA’s whole reason for being was to help students whose behavior and emotional problems were not being helped through traditional schooling or mental health programs. In a very real sense it was a last stop school parents could choose who had tried everything for their children: therapy, hospital, residential treatment centers, home schooling, alternative schools, traditional wilderness experiences, medication etc. These were the parents for whom nothing had worked for their child. Many parents I interviewed told me they had chosen RMA because it was something different and they knew of no other promising options, and the reports of success from the school gave them enough hope to try again. In my experience, an overwhelming majority of the students I enrolled at RMA had at least one previous placement the parents had hoped would solve his/her behavioral/emotional problems. Parents often explained that their child’s enrollment at RMA was a last desperate try.
The school was very eclectic, adopting many techniques from a variety from both accepted and experimental approaches in working with adolescents with emotional/behavioral problems. Within a general boarding school structure, they adopted many practices from Outward Bound ™, est, Life Spring, Synanon, psychology groups (which RMA called raps) and propheets (marathon groups inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet) and experiential and mastery education. In addition, instead of adopting the almost universal practice of schools at the time being non-profit, RMA was organized as a for-profit school.
Overall, RMA and CEDU were a grand experiment, adopting many promising but not necessarily proven techniques from many experimental approaches that spawned out of the turmoil of the 1960s, and at the time were showing promising success. In addition, many standard psychological techniques were also adopted. The first priority was to provide what the children needed. Other common factors in schools like economies of scale or current education or mental health treatment fads were at best secondary.
Many of these practices later became controversial or were found to be not effective and were discarded as the school evolved. However, many other experimental practices became adopted as standard practices in working with young people throughout the education and mental health fields. This included practices such as climbing walls, ropes courses, emphasis on developing a relationship with nature, and emphasizing school structure as a healing technique.
My experience as Admissions Coordinator, and later Admissions Director, at RMA (1984-1989) gave me many insights into the weaknesses of standard mental health treatment and traditional schools in the 1970s and into the 1980s for “troubled teens.” These weaknesses had been the motivations for many experimental approaches to education and treatment that flourished in the 1960s and was continuing into the 1980s. These new practices rejected treatment and educational orthodoxy, and as a replacement developed practices based on different assumptions about human nature, learning and causes of human failure. The leaders of RMA and CEDU felt there was a better way to help these children with emotional/behavioral problems than with the conventional therapy and mental health treatment of the time. They saw education as being more promising. Such was the genesis of RMA and CEDU.
Comments and discussion welcomed
To Be Continued in Section 3 (The Problem)