Harnessing the Power Of Positive Peer Pressure

By Karen Diegmueller — June 08, 1994 13 min read

The drive at the far entrance to the boys’ school, deep in the Pennsylvania countryside, snakes alongside large expanses of athletic fields and buildings, emptying at the quadrangle, the core of the campus.

Anchoring one end of the quadrangle is the porticoed red-brick administration building, its copper trim weathered to a greenish cast. At the other end stands a neo-Gothic stone chapel with stained-glass windows--built with the largess of the Smith Brothers of cough-drop fame.

Stately residences, known colloquially as “cottages,’' line both sides of the quad at the Glen Mills Schools, 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

Sporting backpacks, pairs of young men stroll along the sidewalks to their classes, taking care not to tread on the greens where purple martins’ birdhouses perch atop towering poles, forming a feathery metropolis of their own.

In this unlikeliest of settings live young men who come not from the wealthiest of families to receive a prep-school education but from the mean streets of New York, Washington, Miami, and other violence-plagued inner cities.

Once Bloods and Crips, thieves, drug dealers, and assorted troublemakers, they now aspire to be Bulls--the Glen Mills students who have demonstrated that they can put their criminal behavior behind them.

Across the nation, states are grappling with an increasingly violent juvenile population in part by pouring millions of dollars into facilities to incarcerate and house young offenders. Glen Mills offers an education and rehabilitation model that few states have imitated, but some, such as Florida, are beginning to examine.

“We are breaking the myths of what a school of our type and these kids can achieve,’' says Randy Ireson, the director of education at Glen Mills.

No Guns, Guards, Gates

A private, nonprofit residential facility, Glen Mills is home to youths ages 14 to 18 who have been sent to the school by the court system. The 750 young men who live at the school at any one time come from 22 states and stay an average of 15 months.

The school provides special-education classes, vocational training, preparation for the General Educational Development test, and college-preparatory education.

But Glen Mills may be as noteworthy for what is not there as for what is. There are no gates, no guards, no guns to secure the youths, who have committed property or violent crimes or perhaps both. Also missing are such traditional components of the juvenile-justice system as psychologists and social workers.

Instead, the school relies on fostering a normative culture in which the students govern and police themselves.

From the very first day a young man arrives on campus, he is assigned a “big brother’’ to guide him. Along with fellow students, the big brother explains what is and is not acceptable behavior.

All students share responsibility for their environment and for each other. If a student sees a peer throw trash on the ground, for instance, and ignores the conduct, the witness will be held as accountable for failing to act as the litterer himself.

That goes for teachers and staff members as well. But rarely do the adults have to discipline students, says Ireson, noting that 98 percent of disciplinary situations require no staff involvement.

Once a young man conforms to the positive norms, according to the school’s philosophy, learning can take place.

“These kids want to learn,’' Ireson says, “but you have to put them in a normal environment.’'

A System Overhauled

Glen Mills has not always followed the positive-peer-culture, or sociological, model of treating juvenile delinquents.

Established in 1826 in Philadelphia as a place to separate juveniles from imprisoned adults, the institution moved to nearby Concordville in 1892.

During the 1960’s and the first half of the 1970’s, the school followed what is known as the custody-clinical model. Under this approach, juveniles receive psychological treatment for perceived emotional and behavioral problems in a secured environment.

By 1974, the student population had dropped to 30, buildings were condemned, the water was unfit to drink, and the school was $800,000 in debt.

A fire broke out, killing a student who had been placed in isolation.

The state ordered that changes be made. One of those changes was the hiring of C.F. Ferrainola to overhaul the institution.

In a white knit pullover and casual black slacks, Ferrainola, puffing a cigar, looks like a kindly, unassuming grandfather until he begins to speak with the fire and idealism generally associated with much younger men.

Having worked at a state institution for juvenile offenders, he says he knew firsthand that incarceration and counseling weren’t likely to help them. “It was going to do them more harm than good,’' says Ferrainola, who goes by Sam. “These kids, as a group, are no different from other high school groups, except they’ve done some dumb things on the street.’'

In switching to a sociological model, Ferrainola says he had two underlying goals. First, change the teenagers’ deviant behavior to positive behavior by teaching them to respect group rights. And, second, develop the finest life-skills programs that would enable the young men to maintain their new behavior once they returned to society.

In a way, Ferrainola and his staff adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’’ technique to reach the youths by taking the same dynamics that can be found in street gangs and altering them to suit their own purposes.

School workers say they are able, in relatively short order, to identify the youths who were gang leaders and to try to channel their leadership qualities into positive endeavors.

They also address the essential elements of belonging and recognition that motivate adolescents.

For instance, all students, regardless of their academic levels, are rewarded at monthly ceremonies for demonstrated progress.

“Kids want to survive, they want to belong, they want to gain status,’' Ireson says. Those urges are “so strong that kids will go against their old power system to belong.’'

“We have some of the toughest inner-city gang members here, kids who literally would not have been caught dead with a book,’' he notes. “Now, all of them carry bookbags with the black-and-yellow Bulls insignia.’'

They also aspire to be members of the Bulls Club, the student governing body.

The club meets formally once a week to share information, discuss troublesome students and problems, and dispense on-campus jobs.

Jay Halverson, the club’s adviser, says that the Bulls conduct the interviews and approve students for jobs because they are far less likely than a teacher or staff member to be conned by a savvy street kid.

Although some problems the Bulls wrestle with recur with frequency, others have diminished. “Ten years ago, we had fistfights,’' Halverson says. “Now, we’re dealing with trash in ashtrays.’'

Pacer and Andy are two youths who have become members of the Bulls Club.

“Up here you gain status by doing positive things,’' says Pacer, a 16-year-old from Philadelphia who is preparing to leave Glen Mills and return to high school in the city.

But the young man, who earned his G.E.D. diploma and a certificate in retail management at the school, believes he has acquired the tools to stay out of trouble.

“I got my head straightened on a bit,’' Pacer says. “I question a lot of things before I do them.’'

Andy, 17, is also being discharged. But the youth, who also has his G.E.D. and is certified as an optical technician, will return a few days later to continue his studies and work toward his high school diploma--an offer Glen Mills makes only to a select few because it has to pick up the tab itself.

“You learn to deal with right and wrong,’' the youth from Indianapolis says. “You learn to take that second to figure out what the consequences are going to be.’'

Both young men have set high goals for themselves. They want to go to college. Andy wants to become an accountant, and Pacer, a print journalist.

An Investment in Education

Upon arrival at Glen Mills, students are assessed for both their academic skills and vocational interests.

In the morning, they attend special-education classes in the learning center, G.E.D. preparation, or, once they’ve received their G.E.D. certificates, college-prep classes.

In the learning center, clusters of young men read quietly. On the wall, a chart displays the students’ names and next to them one gold star for each book they have read. The gold stars can be redeemed for food and beverages at the student union.

“Who’s read the most books?’' Ireson asks.

One young man shoots up his hand. “Eighteen,’' he replies proudly.

Next door in the center’s language-arts lab, staff members are adjusting newly installed computer software that will read aloud to students what they have just written.

Another element of the school’s philosophy, Ireson explains, is to invest heavily in its educational mission rather than in counseling services, which Glen Mills believes are unnecessary.

Andy and Pacer explain some of the norms that are followed in class: Students can’t rest their heads against their hands, for instance. “If you can’t lean on your hand, you can’t fall asleep in class,’' Andy says.

Better not goof off either. If one student does, says Pacer, the whole class loses a break.

A brief tour of classes confirms that the system is working. Even though the G.E.D.-preparation class is packed with 80 students, the place is so quiet the teacher can easily be heard.

Although the student-teacher ratio in the college-prep classes is about 30 to 1, the science class is jammed with students. But even those sitting up against the back wall who must swivel partway around to see the front of the classroom are paying attention to the young man who is identifying the plastic replicas of human bones.

Because classroom space is at a premium, school officials have embarked on a construction program. A new $2.5 million academic building is scheduled to open in the fall. Work will begin shortly to convert the chapel, which is no longer used for religious services, into a library with computer kiosks so friendly that youths wholly unfamiliar with libraries will be able to find their way around.

Afternoons and evenings are devoted to vocational training. All students are placed in a program to learn a trade.

There are vo-tech labs for virtually any interest, from photography and broadcasting to drafting and carpentry.

The school used to certify students by the number of hours they put into their lab work, but it recently switched to a performance-based system.

Glen Mills, in fact, practices many of the education reforms that are now in vogue--shared decisionmaking, year-round schooling, school-to-work transition--even though the staff doesn’t necessarily know it. “It just makes sense,’' Ireson says.

Near the end of a student’s stay, he is reassessed, and the school makes sure he knows how to look for a job, write a rÀesumÀe, and undergo an interview, as well as how to find an apartment, deal with utility companies, and many other life skills.

Pacer recently took his exit exam. “You got an A in the class, too,’' instructor Greg Gottshalk tells his pupil.

Gottshalk is a brawny man, like most of the teachers and staff.

That’s no accident. The school tries to recruit former college athletes. “We look for guys who are team players,’' Ireson says. It also helps that they can coach sports, another central component of the school.

In fact, Glen Mills has become an athletic powerhouse. In power lifting, for example, the Bulls were national high school champions for five years running and state champs for 10 years.

But winning is not the most important element. In the power-lifting room, a sign on the wall ranks winning behind learning to grow together and learning to respect oneself.

Although students do not have to play sports, they are encouraged to do so because athletics gets and keeps the youths involved in their school.

Attendance at games is sometimes mandatory. When the Bulls go to championship games or team meets, Glen Mills charters 19 buses and takes all the students along.

The behavior learned at the school seems to carry over off campus. Ireson reports that no student has ever gotten into trouble on an outing, nor have visiting sports teams encountered difficulties when they visit Glen Mills.

Hassles With Harrisburg

While the school enjoys friendly relations with its neighbors, the same is not always true with state officials in Harrisburg.

Because the school wants to maintain its autonomy, it has no endowments nor does it take money from foundations or other sources save the per diems states provide to feed, shelter, and educate the youths.

But off and on through the years, Glen Mills has squared off with state officials. Currently, the school is fighting proposed regulations that would force it to divest itself of its cash reserves and would allow the state to define how much money the school could spend per pupil for various services.

Ferrainola finds the situation intolerable. “It would undermine the normative culture of this school,’' he says of the proposal now being considered by the public-welfare department. “My school would be just like the hellholes they operate.’'

He believes the state might be justified if Glen Mills were not the least expensive residential facility in the state by as much as $100 per youth per day. According to Glen Mills, its per-diem rate has actually dropped from $121 in 1975 to $73.22.

Kevin Campbell, a spokesman for the welfare department, says the proposed regulations would give the state some control over its share--now 60 percent--of the cost to house juveniles in facilities statewide.

If push comes to shove, Ferrainola says he will reluctantly stop taking in Pennsylvania youths, who now make up 50 percent of the student body.

Keeping costs down is not the only accomplishment Glen Mills has to show.

During 1993 alone, 271 students earned their G.E.D.'s, 238 found jobs, and 30 enrolled in trade and technical schools.

Another 42 students enrolled in college, bringing the total of college enrollments since 1981 to 230.

According to school data, the average growth in basic skills on the Metropolitan Achievement Test has been 2.1 years for every six months at Glen Mills.

In addition, 98 students who took the American College Testing program exam during the past school year achieved a composite score of 17 or higher out of a possible 36.

Perhaps of primary importance are the findings from a study, although somewhat dated, indicating that the recidivism rate for students who went through the Glen Mills program dropped sharply after it switched to the sociologial approach.

Under the old system, 90 percent of the juveniles were rearrested and more than 50 percent were incarcerated within 27 months of discharge. Under the new model, 50 percent of the students were rearrested and 35 percent were institutionalized as of 1985.

Jerome G. Miller, the president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, based in Alexandria, Va., says the peer-pressure model seems to have worked well at Glen Mills. But he is wary of its use under many circumstances because, he says, the model has a tendency to become repressive and lose its vibrancy.

“It very much depends on the leadership,’' he explains. “Sam does it very well,’' says Miller, a former Pennsylvania commissioner of children and youths who knows Ferrainola well.

Miller is also leery of the ability of such large institutions to serve the needs of juveniles.

“I just question whether it is a replicable model over time,’' he says.

A Success Story

But for youths like Cory Thames, a stint at Glen Mills has made all the difference. The 21-year-old is a junior at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he is on an academic scholarship.

Before ending up at Glen Mills in April 1990, Thames had attended Lake Clifton High School in Baltimore, known to its students, he says, as “Genocide High.’'

Though intelligent, Thames wouldn’t obey the rules. He went through 9th grade three times before being promoted to the 10th grade. Shortly after getting kicked off the basketball team for failing to keep up his grades, he landed in jail, was sent to one juvenile facility, and eventually wound up at Glen Mills.

He earned his high school diploma, then went on to a job and, later, college.

He often wonders where he would be today had it not been for Glen Mills.

Born on the same day, Thames and his best friend called each other “brother’’ and were inseparable. His friend was convicted of murder and is serving life plus 30 years in prison. “Everyone I talk to says, ‘If you hadn’t gone to school, you would have been with him.’''

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 1994 edition of Education Week as Harnessing the Power Of Positive Peer Pressure