Published Online: May 14, 1997


A School Away From Home, Part II

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Stewart says he admitted the boys but not the girl, determining that she needed intensive psychiatric counseling. Two psychologists are at the school just once a week, and there is only one full-time guidance counselor.

"I don't know if we can be sure that any child who comes here will succeed," Stewart sighs. "You try to make a valued decision."

In keeping with its tradition, the Scotland School runs on military time. The day begins at 0600, while it's still dark out.

All the younger students and most older ones live with a supervisor, called a houseparent, in one of 22 brick, two-story cottages, with about a dozen children in each. The rest live in a dormitory over the administration building.

'We try to eliminate cracks for kids to fall through.'

Angus D. Hamilton
Scotland School
for Veterans' Children

In Cottage 21, 4th grade boys in white T-shirts quietly eat French toast and cereal for breakfast under the close watch of their houseparent, Evelyn Fleming. By 0630, all the boys are finished eating and have turned to their "detail," washing dishes, vacuuming, or wiping the baseboards. Then they don button-down shirts, ties, and navy pants for class.

After school, there is some free time. On a recent evening, the downstairs living room of Cottage 38 resembles a sorority house. One girl, forehead in hand, studies at a table. Another braids a friend's hair, and 11th grader Vernee Watson chats on the telephone with her boyfriend. "I need white tights," cries Ebony Morris, a senior.

Later, Watson, Morris, and junior Khadijah Butler, all from Philadelphia, hang out on the couch. "Some of the girls here are like sisters to me," Watson says.

Their houseparent, Margaret Reisinger, a former school bus driver, joins the conversation. The girls chat easily around her.

Houseparents, who earn an average of $21,000 a year, aren't required to have a college degree or training. Outside consultants and oversight agencies have recommended more on-the-job training, particularly for those who have trouble disciplining children or organizing activities.

Upstairs in the cottage, the girls have adorned their bedrooms with posters of rap musicians, family photos, and stuffed animals. But scuffed linoleum floors, threadbare rugs, peeling ceiling paint, and exposed pipes in the basement detract from the home-like atmosphere.

The cottages date to the 1930s, as does the school building. Its worn interior includes black and green linoleum, light-blue concrete walls, and ceramic tile. But there is no graffiti.

Angus D. Hamilton, who started teaching at the school in 1971, has been the principal for six years. He says that only one student is likely to fail this year. Students receive a progress report every three weeks.

"We try to eliminate cracks for kids to fall through," Hamilton says.

In 1990, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits the school, recommended an updated curriculum, more professional development, and better equipment for vocational and technical programs. Frame, who as superintendent manages both the school and residential life, says he has addressed these concerns.

The last review by the state department of education, which oversaw the school until last July, was in 1988. That report says the "conscientious staff, although graying and somewhat provincial in academic preparation, exhibits enthusiasm for their subjects and, most importantly, has a deep concern for the personal lives of their students."

That concern is evident in teachers like Gail Aumiller, who taught in public schools around the country before coming to Scotland 14 years ago. She teaches computer applications to junior high students.

This is a school for veterans' children, and Pennsylvania's former servicemen and women keep a close eye on it.

"Unlike the public schools, we know that when the children come to school, they're not hungry and tired," she says. "They're ready to learn."

Aumiller, however, would love to replace the outdated computers in her classroom and link the new ones to the Internet. Pat Hurt, the librarian, dreams of an aide and, of course, more books. Music teacher Charles Miller had to take over the band after a position was cut.

Kimberly Ferry taught in the Washington suburb of Prince George's County, Md., before coming here last year. She says her classes of 15--about a third of the size she was used to before--allow her to work one-on-one with students. Her biology students recently raised generations of fruit flies, a complicated experiment she says she never would have pulled off in a large class.

"I'm busier than I've ever been, but I'm happier than I've ever been," says Ferry, 25, who also coaches track. When she left the traditional public schools, she says, "I wasn't sure whether I hated to teach or I just hated the environment." Now she knows, and she says she'll never go back.

This is a school for veterans' children, and Pennsylvania's former servicemen and women keep a close eye on it. Every veterans' group in Pennsylvania helps the school in some way, serving as surrogate PTAs by raising money and hosting parties.

In July, the state education department handed oversight of the school to the department of military and veterans' affairs.

"Veterans have given up a part of their lives, and we feel as if there's a debt we owe them to see that their children are well-treated," says Jack Keith, the deputy director of veterans' affairs.

The major change planned by the department is to sell part of the school's property to raise money for a new dormitory. One or two large residences, the logic goes, would be easier to maintain than cottages.

This year, the veterans' department is paying for 72 percent of the school's budget. The rest comes from the federal government and the local districts where Scotland students would attend school otherwise.

Groups of veterans often visit the school, and many are no doubt pleased by its resemblance to boot camp. Boys wear buzz cuts. High school students are required to enroll in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, where they learn military history and marching drills. Once a week, they stand at attention while retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Pierce peers at their shiny buckles and shoes.

The military approach is perhaps most apparent in the school's rigid disciplinary code. Students can't leave campus without permission. Punishments range from raking leaves to staying after school to being sent home for the weekend, depending on where the offense falls in one of five categories.

"Sometimes you feel like you're in jail," says 8th grader Jerome Rideout, who has been suspended for fighting.

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