Thursday, June 23, 2016

Unique lessons taught at The Deck House School

I seriously didn’t think it would mesh that perfectly.  Yes I knew Prize Day was going to be a powerful day; it always is.  And of course Peter was going to be a great speaker; he always is.  But the power and the passion that went into that day was different and something I have rarely experienced.

I suppose I owe you some history here.

As loyal readers of our blog know, the School is on the road to recovery.  We have spent the last 6 months successfully reintroducing ourselves simultaneously to the Educational Consultant, wilderness therapy and boarding school worlds.  We have attended conferences, and have launched a very successful marketing campaign.  We have built up our summer semester, and have many students lining up for that and the traditional school year.  We, of course, knew that there was a place in the educational landscape for our unique school when it stayed true the original mission that Ned set out all those years ago, we just needed to get the word out.  We knew that we needed to do a Ray Kinsella and, well, build it so they would come. 

What I also knew was Peter’s story.  Rev. Peter Panagore is a close friend whom I have known for nearly 20 years.  Our friendship has encompassed so many aspects of both of our lives.  We have laughed and cried together in so many places; ski slopes, coffee shops, the back bay of Portland, and during long bike rides to name just a few. We can talk over each other trying to make jokes and tell stories,  and we can relish in the silence which only people very comfortable with their friendship can appreciate.  So when I invited Peter to speak at Prize Day earlier this month, I knew it would be good; what I didn’t know was just how beautiful it would be.

It was in the middle of listening to Peter’s speech when it dawned on me; he truly gets it, he gets these boys.  He understands their beliefs and passions, he feels their pain and he empathizes with their struggles.  As I watched the families of our graduates, I could see heads nodding and tears flowing.  They got it too.  The saw a part of their son in Peter and they knew they were heading in the right direction. 

I have sat through many commencements; as a parent, a sibling, an uncle, a friend and, of course, as a graduate.  And, to be fair, I have heard some amazing commencement addresses.  But there was something about this year’s Prize Day address which was different. 

The school was on display through Peter that day.  All the work we do with these boys was up there, warts and all.  I have always said it would be a lot easier to run a school, which had a system of demerits and checks in a book, but it wouldn’t be real.  We teach life lessons here, we cook together, we clean together, we laugh, and yes, we cry.  We teach the whole student about life, and that what was on display that sunny morning; life.  Raw, real and beautiful. 

Peter summed it up perfectly in his closing;

“Look here, I don’t know what your particular problem is, but let me tell you this, you are smart and capable young men and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, most of all yourself. You owe a great deal, just as I do, to those who love you, who stand by you, and support you, your parents, families, friends, a custodian, and especially your teachers.

After every failure I get back up and fight again and strive everyday for improvement while hunting always for new compensation skills and tools. I let my passion drive me. You say I am a failure? I will prove you wrong. I fight to succeed where others succeed with ease. I daily turn my disability into my advantage.

You can too,
You will too,
Your will to
Means everything.”

Those of us who have been involved with The Deck House School long term have been told many times that it's a failure, that we should just shut our doors.  But, like Peter, we fight on, we turn our disability into our advantage and we fight to succeed.  This passion is real and tangible, and it was on display that early June morning; by Peter, the students and the entire school family - and for having the opportunity to play a small part in that I will be eternally grateful.    

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Staying True to the Mission at Deck House, or, Size Matters...

The Deck House School’s maximum enrollment is 12; always has been, always will be.   Not 12 per class, not 12 per grade, but 12 in the school.  This unique fact gets a lot of attention when people first learn about us.  For many it’s hard to imagine a residential high school operating on the scale of a large family offering so many of the trappings of a larger school.
For us, it is simply a way to continue the vision of our founder Ned Hall.  Ned always envisioned Deck House operating simultaneously both as family and as school. He literally opened his home to those first boys, and he saw a future for the school where teachers were more like mentors than pure educators, and where, most importantly to him, the school gathered as a family around the dinner table each evening.  
Certainly, operating a school the size of this place has its challenges. Not having the capacity to hire cooking or cleaning staff means you will find our entire community as part of the weekly rotation for meals and cleaning. These times where staff and students are working together towards a common goal are some of the most powerful teaching moments we have. We all know that in a school of hundreds it is possible for students to hide without having a significant impact on the functioning of the community; quite often students at these larger schools feel lost or unheard. In our school when one person, staff or student alike, doesn’t do their job the entire community feels it. This is a powerful lesson for many of our boys.
Often times one of the biggest concerns of a student joining us is related to its size. With only a dozen classmates, our potential students worry: Will anyone like me? Will I be able to find a friend? Of course in a large school finding a friend is often a matter of finding a similar group; sports guys find the sports guys, theater guys find the arts crowd. Unfortunately, those without strong group affiliation -often Deck House type students - feel lost. In a school of our size there really is only one group: the school. Our boys learn that they can be themselves and not only survive, but thrive.
Is The Deck House School for everyone? Certainly not, but for the young man who has become lost in a larger, less supportive setting we offer an alternative in which they can find their way. Just like Ned used to do, every night we sit together at the dining room for dinner.  It's around that table, without realizing it, that these guys are carrying on the informal mission of the School; that this is a family, and in the Deck House family everyone matters.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Deck House School; Doing Things a Little Differently

One of the many lessons I have learned during my 27 year relationship with The Deck House School is that lessons and those moments we all remember rarely come from the scripted times. Don't get me wrong, some great moments come from the hours spent in the classroom.  Also, yes I (somewhat reluctantly) agree that it’s important and necessary to have NEASC accreditation and reports, annual overview of our mission, and the quarterly Board of Director meetings; these all serve very necessary and important functions in the running of the school.  All that being said, I feel that it is very important for all of us, staff and students alike, to remember that more often than not it’s the little, unscripted things which stick with us.

In the spirit of painting the full picture, allow me some latitude here.  

Like many schools, we feel community service is an important part of what we do.  Let’s be blunt: a lot of programs have community service programs which look good on a website, a grant application, or, frankly, when speaking to parents.  I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these programs, I know first hand a great deal of very good work comes out of them. That being said, here at Deck House, we (shockingly) do things a little differently.  Rather than explaining our community service program, let me just tell you about yesterday.

Thursdays have become our community service day.  Keir and I have reconfigured the schedule to allow the guys to have a block of time in the mornings when we can focus on our local projects.  Yesterday, Keir went to Boothbay Harbor to work with one of the guys at the local community center, and I went to Wiscasset to give a few hours to a local Co-op farm.  Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had to wrangle 6 teenage boys out of their cozy beds to go work outside on a, shall we say, crisp April morning, but it’s not easy.

Unfortunately because of a scheduling error, the local farm had no work for us.  So off we went, back to the school.  Now this could have turned into an unmitigated disaster.  No community service, no classes scheduled, and 6 grumpy teenagers. 

So when we got back, I spoke with them.  I explained the situation to them and we decided we’d get classes going early, and instead of the farm, we’d spend an hour outside working on our own gardens.  I was steeled for the bevy of excuses and cries of, “That’s not fair.” But instead I got a whole bunch of guys saying, “Ok, sounds good.”

So there they were, from 2:00 until (almost) 3:00 busily, and I dare say happily, working on our flower gardens.   They could have easily shut down or blown it off but they didn’t.  They saw that this was important and needed so they stepped up. 

To me, that is community service, and that is what The Deck House is all about. 

Another great lesson. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Deck House Changing (and not changing) with the Times...


I’m actually thinking of making bracelets, seriously, which say WWNT.

What Would Ned Think??

As many of you know Ned Hall was our founder.  I had the privilege and honor to work with Ned for three years, and while at the time (I was only in my mid 20’s) I didn’t fully appreciate his dedication and vision, I now (in my late 40’s) can see the method to his madness a bit more clearly.

Ned was relentless, some would say dogmatic, with his vision.   He felt very strongly that this was to be a school where young men learned how to live life, not just how to conjugate a verb or solve a word problem.  Ned was always telling me that the true education was outside the classroom, and the best lessons were taught in our tired old Suburban or on the tennis court.  Most people who met Ned felt he was old school, that he was stuck in his ways.  But I would argue that he was actually ahead of his time.  That the ideas he brought forth to start this little school were cutting edge for 1979, and most are relevant in 2016.

But this is not 1979.  Things have changed.  Milk isn’t  $1.62 a gallon and a stamp isn’t 15 cents.  Just as I can’t get away with wearing my bell-bottoms and wearing my hair in an Afro, we cannot run the school exactly the way it was then. What we can do, however, is stay true to Ned’s vision; we can ask ourselves, WWNT.

With our commitment to community service, co-curricular activities, Monday school cleanings and community dinners, we are holding true to what has made our school a unique and special place that has educated young men struggling in the academic mainstream for over 35 years now.  We doggedly hold onto these principals because they define us, and more importantly, they work.  Young men who spend time up here still get the support, academic rigor and care which Ned envisioned.

Like Ned did back in 1979, we continue to think outside the box and try new things.  For example, academically we utilize technology that was unheard of even a few years ago and will soon be working in conjunction with Boothbay Region High School to offer full college courses.  On the non-academic side, we are now lining up internships and work opportunities for the guys where college isn’t in their immediate future, and we can now have our guys fully participate in all of the extra-curricular activities offered at BRHS, including interscholastic sports  Some would say we are changing too much, but I’d like to think Ned would have been pretty excited that we are doing all of this and still deliver a first class  education up at his little school.

Yes, Ned would be upset that dinner is no longer at 7:30, and that we no longer have a formal dinner Sunday night.  But I know he’d be happy that we now gather as a community every morning to talk about what’s coming up today, and to share any concerns any of us may have. 

So, what would Ned think?  I think he’d be proud of where Deck House is today.  I think he’d love the classes we’re teaching, I think he’d be mad he would be banished to smoking his pipe only in his office, and I think he’d want us to keep going, to keep tinkering and to keep teaching.  I think he’d love playing backgammon with the guys, and telling them stories; all the while teaching both the boys and himself.   Most of all, however, I think he’d be upset that I spent this much time talking about him!