Father Flanagan's Gospel

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Boys Town, Neb.

Fourteen-year-old Tammy, looking fashionably grungy in a long flannel shirt and shaggy black hair, strides into Principal Catherine DeSalvo's office for her appointed tete-a-tete. The lanky adolescent folds herself into a stiff-backed chair as DeSalvo takes a visual inventory.

"You've got your feet on the floor, and you have a pleasant expression. That's great!" DeSalvo says. "But please put your hands on your lap." The teenager slaps her palms on her thighs in compliance.

Tammy knows she's on the hot seat this spring morning because the day before, she bolted out of class and started using a hall couch as a trampoline.

The incident rates a 4 (out of a possible 5) on the "difficult behavior" scale because Tammy refused to follow directions to return to class, says DeSalvo. She records the event on a square gray card that tallies students' responsible and irresponsible conduct.

After the required act of contrition, Tammy signs a contract agreeing to her punishment: an in-school suspension. For the next two days, she'll be eating lunch alone, doing extra homework assignments, and studying during her class breaks. Having agreed to the punishment, she dutifully marches down the hall to deliver a formal apology to her teacher.

This isn't your standard visit to the principal's office. But then, this isn't your typical school.

Wegner Middle School is located at Boys Town, the world-renowned child-care home established in 1917 by the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan, the bespectacled Roman Catholic priest immortalized in the classic film starring Spencer Tracy.

But what began as a smattering of dormitories and roomy mess halls on an isolated plot of Nebraska farmland is now a sprawling residential-treatment facility that houses, feeds, and educates troubled young boys and--since 1979--girls as well. In fact, 40 percent of today's residentsare girls.

What Flanagan launched with a modest $90 loan has grown into a nonprofit institution with a $100 million annual budget and satellite operations in 16 locations from Trabuco Canyon, Calif., to the District of Columbia. (See story, page 34.) The generous budget, which is drawn from social-service agencies, donations from the public, and reserve funds, ensures that no child in need will have to pay for his stay.

The young people who have made their way over the years to this particular patch of Nebraska cornfield represent the changing faces of America's children in the 20th century.

The 8- to 18-year-olds who arrived at Boys Town during the first half of this century were primarily homeless and destitute. Most of the early pilgrims to what was then dubbed "the city of little men" had either lost their parents in World War I or to the devastating influenza epidemic that swept through American cities and towns in 1915. Boys would arrive at Boys Town from Kansas, South Dakota, or California, by bus or train, in tattered coats and torn sweaters, asking to speak to the man in the black suit.

All of today's 550 residents are here voluntarily but were referred by social-service agencies, frustrated parents, or the juvenile courts. Only 2 percent of Boys Town residents today are orphans. More than half the children arriving here have been sexually abused. Eighty percent have been emotionally or physically neglected. A large number have abused drugs or alcohol. One in four has attempted suicide. And two current residents have committed murder.

The children of today's Boys Town look a lot like Tammy. (The names of minors in this article have been changed.)

As the gangly adolescent ambles down the corridor toward her class to apologize to her teacher, DeSalvo explains that the 9th grader was a prostitute when she arrived here six months ago. A juvenile-court judge referred her to Boys Town.

Tammy has already come a long way, DeSalvo says. "She's not seeing every boy as a client now," the administrator says, adding that Tammy is being encouraged to develop platonic relationships with her fellow students. "We are having her work on her friendship skills."

Friendship skills. Effective praise. Positive and negative consequences. These concepts are all part of the highly structured teaching method designed to keep order in the classroom that grew out of Flanagan's philosophy for treating needy children. The priest often said: "There is no such thing as a bad boy, only bad environments, bad examples, and bad thinking."

Since Flanagan's death in 1948, Boys Town educators have stayed true to the priest's homespun philosophy, but they have tailored his teachings to fit the modern classroom. Their approach to discipline is based on a few simple principles: Praise more than you punish. Articulate your expectations. Give students a reason to be good.

But not every youngster with problems makes it to a place like Boys Town. Across the country, public schools are struggling to deal with a growing number of students whose troubled lives lead to troublesome behavior in the classroom. Flanagan's disciples think they have the answer and have begun to preach the gospel of Boys Town to their colleagues nationwide. The question is whether they'll make true believers.

The Boys Town Resource and Training Center sits on the edge of a man-made lake that winds through the 1,300-acre campus. The tan-brick building blends into the wheat-colored grass that undulates over small hills toward a two-lane blacktop. Across the steep bank, students saddled with backpacks trot down Flanagan Street to their next class. A redheaded boy sprints across Heroes Boulevard to the gymnasium.

Since it became an incorporated town in 1936, Boys Town has established its own fire station, post office, and police force. It now encompasses 76 single-family homes and a working farm. It has also built two churches and this conference center to spread the word about the organization's education program to out-of-town guests.

Inside one of the center's airy meeting rooms, two dozen public school teachers from Wyoming, Texas, South Dakota, and Kansas are getting their first taste of the Boys Town approach. A team of educators is teaching a workshop on "the well-managed classroom," a social-skills program for K-12 teachers. This workshop is one of 220 professional-development seminars for teachers and administrators that the center conducts each year. Since 1990, Boys Town has held thousands of trainings in 49 states. The topic this hour--how to handle out-of-control students effectively--is the center's big seller.

"Don't be a nag or a bitch or gnaw at students by overly describing what's inappropriate," Thomas Dowd, the center's director, admonishes the teachers, who are fidgeting in their chairs. The way to handle a disruptive child, he advises, is to begin the "teaching interaction" with a statement of praise to get the student's attention. The compliment may be simply a thank you for making eye contact--a sign of respect. Then, Dowd suggests, take a series of conversational steps: describe the inappropriate behavior, give the offender a rationale for doing things differently the next time, ask for an acknowledgment that he or she understands the offense, and issue a punishment. Finally, he says, end the conversation with another compliment, such as "thanks for listening."

"The whole teaching interaction is a sandwich," Dowd concludes. "You have positive statements in front and behind and crap in between."

The trainers tell these teachers--who obviously are having trouble swallowing this particular sandwich--that this method is already being tested on the young people attending school across the lake at Boys Town. People like Mark, who murdered a rival with a shotgun in self-defense; Jill, who ran away and lived on the streets after her mother was jailed for murder; and 16-year-old Patricia, whose grandfather had sexually abused her since she was 9 years old. If the method can help these children learn to concentrate on their classwork, the trainers say, surely it can help most public school students as well.

That's what the South Dakota teachers are hoping for. Kellie Holmstrom, a teacher from the small town of Yankton, says the three-day course will be well worth the $345 fee if she can learn how to get a handle on the pandemonium in her 2nd-grade classroom.

"The kids are disrespecting us, and we are just pulling our hair out," Holmstrom says during a break. Teachers in Yankton's high school have had to break up fights and confiscate jackknives from students. But, she says, "even the young ones are hell on wheels."

Meanwhile, next door, one of Holmstrom's colleagues is taking this teaching method out for a spin. Don Campbell, a history teacher at Yankton's only high school, is doing a role-play of a scene in which a student refuses to accept no for an answer. A trainer, Marvin Crum, plays the part of the difficult student. In the skit, Crum bounds up to Campbell and demands to leave class to go to the library. When Campbell refuses and asks him to return to his seat, Crum pouts, "Oh, you never let me go!" Campbell spins around on his chair and stares at his pretend pupil.

"Thanks for looking at me," says Campbell, glancing down at the cue card in his hand. "I told you I don't want you to go at this time. A more appropriate thing for you to do would be to stay calm," he continues. After class, Campbell says these conversational strategies are a welcome addition to his current repertoire. "This stuff is just common sense," he says.

Teaching techniques such as these, which have been refined and revised over a number of years, blend Flanagan's own ideas with the findings of contemporary social-science research on discipline.

Education was always central to Flanagan's approach, but he didn't intend to run his own school. For the first two years, Boys Town residents attended the Omaha public school system. But the local students belittled the young men for their lack of scholastic skills, according to Tom Lynch, Boys Town's historian. "The boys who were going to Omaha schools were picked on and called ruffians, and Father wanted to give them the attention they needed," Lynch says. Thus, in 1919, Flanagan opened the home's first school.

Naturally, Flanagan also emphasized religious training. Though he established Boys Town as a secular institution, Flanagan believed that one of the first things these displaced boys needed to learn was how to pray. From the beginning, Catholic and Protestant children were required to attend church on Sunday and Bible classes during the week. Jewish children were expected to attend Hebrew school at a nearby synagogue as well as observe the Sabbath.

That emphasis continues today. "Life has failed our children not at the end, but at the very beginning," says the Rev. Val J. Peter, Boys Town's current executive director. "They need to get in touch with a power greater than themselves."

Flanagan also insisted that students learn a vocational skill. Many of the original Boys Town youths did not have homes to return to, and the priest wanted to make sure they could earn a living when they lefthis care.

In the 1920s and 1930s, some young men learned to operate printing presses and published regular editions of Father Flanagan's Boys' Home Journal. Other kids repaired broken tractors, plowed fields, baled hay, fixed the plumbing, and fashioned birdhouses out of wood. Flanagan even set up a tiny Boys Town bank and printed paper money so the young men could learn the virtue of thrift. By doing good works, the boys could earn thumb-sized pink and white paper "dollars" to spend on such treats as plastic combs, Hershey's chocolate bars, and Sugar Daddy candies.

"Father Flanagan wanted the boys to be active instead of loafing around so they wouldn't get into mischief," Lynch says.

But by 1975, more boys than ever were coming to the facility, and mischief had come to mean a drug overdose, suicide attempt, or a gunfight. Officials knew the entire structure of the place would have to change. Flanagan's successors replaced the large, spartan dormitories with the clusters of small group homes that remain today. Foster-care couples called family-teachers were hired to care for the eight boys or girls in each residence. Researchers from the University of Kansas developed a behavior program that emphasized structured dialogues between parent-teachers and residents. The program was successful, but officials were dismayed that by the time the children had walked the short distance from their homes to school, their good manners had deteriorated.

So with the help of the same researchers, Boys Town educators created a similar code of conduct for the school setting. The result was a set of dialogues such as those the public school teachers were rehearsing in the recent workshop. And in 1979, officials formally linked school and home environments so that undesirable behaviors at school would result in disciplinary actions at home.

"Our ultimate goal is to teach kids to take responsibility for their actions," says Andrea H. Christe, a one-time special-education teacher who oversees the education-training program at Boys Town. "But if we don't explain what our expectations are, we can't hold students accountable."

The teaching technique, which augments the school's standard curriculum in science, history, English, and mathematics, is designed to help students learn the values of respect, hard work, and self-control. But some of the teachers being introduced to the method complain that the classroom dialogues are so stilted they would produce little automatons who would rely on their instructors' prompts to behave.

"We aren't going to use the same canned speech they do," one teacher says of the instructors after a workshop.

But the formal terminology, similar to that found in 12-step or other treatment programs, is meant to foster a sense of belonging to a special community, Christe says. "When teachers ask, 'Aren't we going to sound like robots?' I say, 'Yeah, but you can revamp the verbiage to make it kid-friendly.'"

For some educators, it's not the words, but the Boys Town brand of etiquette that is questionable. Under this social-skills approach, students are expected to master "greeting skills," which consist of making eye contact, shaking hands, and stating one's name "in a pleasant voice tone."

"The constant eye contact I wouldn't see using at all," says Lil Manthei, a Cherokee teacher at a Cheyenne River Reservation school who attended the conference with three other educators. Native Americans often bow their heads and avert their gaze as a sign of respect, she explains. Looking at someone directly would be an affront.

"The cultural differences are definitely going to have to be dealt with," echoes Donna Taken Alive, a Lakota tribe member who also teaches at the reservation school.

Some teachers also doubt that this controlled educational experiment conducted on a bucolic farm in America's heartland will translate well to classrooms across the country.

Even if they succeed in teaching these social skills in their classrooms, they say, they have no control over the child's home life.

Boys Town doesn't face that problem, of course. The children all live with their family-teachers, who are paid $25,000 a year to teach their young charges right from wrong 24 hours a day.

The street where Rachel, her seven "sisters," and two family-teachers live could be a middle-class suburb just about anywhere. Rows of spacious red-brick houses sit on a grassy slope overlooking a tranquil lake. Minivans and station wagons are parked in the driveways and children ride their bicycles along the wide tree-shaded street.

Rachel, a senior, is going over the chores she must do this evening before her 10 p.m. bedtime. "Clean the toilets, make the bed, vacuum, clean the mirror and the chrome on the sink," she counts.

When children arrive at Boys Town, they are issued a card on which the various adults who care for them tally points for inappropriate and appropriate behavior. They must earn 10,000 points a day to acquire such privileges as watching television, listening to the radio, or having a sweet snack. If they refuse to do their duties or are otherwise uncooperative, they could lose some privileges.

Rachel, who has been at Boys Town for 3-1/2 of her 17 years, thinks the system, though strict, has made her a better person.

"There' are a lot of things that have changed about me," she says. "Before I came, I thought, 'What's wrong with being in a gang?' I was too quick to want to fight." She points to a picture of her 13-year-old cousin who recently was shot and killed in a gang-related clash. Next to the snapshot of the boy is a large poster of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Now, I think before I act," Rachel says.

But even without this behavioral coaching at home, some educators who have tried the Boys Town approach say it can significantly improve students' behavior.

"It's been a 180-degree turn in terms of how kids behave," says Jane Humphreys, the elementary coordinator for the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District near Houston.

Since the 52,000-student district began using the teaching method in 21 elementary schools three years ago, there has been a dramatic reduction in suspensions and referrals to the principal's office.

"We had disruptive classrooms with kids out of their seats, throwing a fit, and yelling, screaming, and crying," Humphreys recalls. "This is really making a difference."

Boys Town officials also point to research done on the method. Researchers compared two elementary schools in Houston between 1993 and 1995, one of which used the Boys Town approach, the other its standard discipline routine. They found that the former school reported significantly fewer office referrals for physically and verbally aggressive behavior than the control school. Teachers also reported that the students were more attentive in class and had fewer disruptive outbursts. The study found that this good behavior was sustained as the students graduated to higher grades.

But for Catherine DeSalvo, the principal at Wegner Middle School, the story is more than the statistics: The true measure of Boys Town is how its students conduct their lives in the outside world. More than 80 percent of Boys Town students graduate from high school, she says. Alumni, now 18,000 strong, include doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business leaders. But a 1985 graduate seems to be the most famous symbol of Boys Town's accomplishments.

In the fall of 1993, 26-year-old Michael Dopheide was a passenger on a eastbound Amtrak train that caught on fire, derailed, and plunged into a bayou north of Mobile, Ala. With only a small flashlight and the glare from the blaze to guide him, the former lifeguard cleared debris from an emergency exit and ushered 30 trapped passengers out of a submerged car to safety. In the media barrage that followed his heroic rescue, the law student credited his years at Boys Town with teaching him to persevere in the face of adversity.

The social conditions of child abuse and abandonment, poverty, and violence that compel young men and women to come to Boys Town are not likely to change in the near future, child advocates predict. And the U.S. Congress is considering various pieces of legislation that could reduce federal funding for child-care services, Medicaid, and welfare programs that serve poor children and their families.

But with $500 million in reserve funds and regular payments from state and local government agencies as well donations from private individuals, Val Peter, the executive director, expects Boys Town to be turning out good citizens for many years to come.

Inside the crowded cafeteria on a recent Friday afternoon, Peter is conducting a ceremony to swear in Boys Town's newest citizens.

Nine teenagers line up against a wall decorated with life-size photographs of the original five Boys Town lads. Today's crew--six boys and three girls--are cleanly dressed in white shirts and ties or bright spring frocks. At Peter's request, they raise their right hand and recite the Boys Town pledge:

"I will be a good citizen of Boys Town," they say in unison. "I will study hard, pray hard, and play well."

As he moves down the line of apprehensive adolescent faces, Edward Flanagan's successor clasps each hand and awards each young person a certificate of citizenship.

This ritual is a message to newcomers, he says, that they are now officially part of something much bigger than themselves.

Vol. 15, Issue 37

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