A School Away From Home

In rural Pennsylvania, one of the nation's few public boarding schools has offered students a safe haven for more than a century.

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A glimpse of the girls in plaid skirts and the boys in gray crew neck sweaters conjures images of an elite boarding school.The campus, dotted by tall oaks and pines, spills over 180 acres in the Cumberland Valley. Black-and-white class pictures and memorial plaques on the walls attest to the school's tradition dating back to the mid-19th century.

But this isn't Andover or Choate or Exeter. Not even close.

At the Scotland School for Veterans' Children, students' parents are more likely to be on welfare than on boards of directors. There are no million-dollar bequests from wealthy alumni, but local veterans' groups chip in with scholarships, Christmas gifts, and cookies at the spring dance. Most of the 350 students here are black and come from tough, inner-city neighborhoods.

What distinguishes this scrappy boarding school the most from its tony counterparts, however, is that the bill for tuition, books, food, and other expenses--$8.89 million this year--goes to the Pennsylvania taxpayers.

With a pull-yourself-up-by-the bootstraps philosophy, the school--one of only a few public boarding schools in the country--sends most of its graduates on to higher education or the military. For many of these students, the tight discipline and bucolic setting offer a challenge and a chance, where before they could see none.

In rural Pennsylvania, one of the nation's few public boarding schools has offered students a safe haven for more than a century.

"When I go back to my old neighborhood, I see that I've changed and my friends haven't," says Chris Buchanan, an 11th grader who came here from Pittsburgh six years ago.

The idea of public boarding schools has percolated in recent years as urban school districts struggle to educate students from poor neighborhoods. Advocates say that round-the-clock attention may be the only way to save the hardest-to-reach children from a life of crime or poverty.

In Trenton, N.J., a residential charter school is scheduled to open this fall with 48 troubled middle school students. The Pennsylvania legislature is considering a bill that would create state-funded boarding schools for at-risk children.

But proposed schools in Chicago, New York City, and Dade County, Fla., have stalled, largely due to their high cost and the Dickensian stigma associated with plucking children from their homes.

Yet here in this little-known school in south-central Pennsylvania, the idea has been put to the test for more than a century.

The Scotland School was formed in 1895 to unite several Pennsylvania shelters founded after the Civil War to provide homes for children whose fathers never came back from places like Gettysburg or Antietam. Now, the Scotland School serves children of a modern-day war--the struggle to rise above the poverty, violence, and broken families that afflict inner cities.

"We can't afford to throw away kids anymore," says Frank Frame, the school's blunt-talking superintendent. "This formula is successful."

Most students here come from Philadelphia, sent by parents hoping to give their 3rd through 12th grade children a good education in a safe place.

Brigitte Harden came here from Chester, Pa., in 1990, when she was not quite 11. Back then, she was a C student who didn't care whether she went to class. She lived with her grandmother and had not spoken to her mother or father for two years.

Today, the cheerful 17-year-old with a wide smile and high cheekbones lives in a special cottage for honor roll students. She earned a 4.0 grade point average on her most recent report card, and is looking forward to her freshman year in college, at either Syracuse University in New York state or Ohio State University.

"I finally got sick of people thinking I was stupid," Harden says.

The Scotland School is led by indefatigable administrators and teachers, many of whom have worked here for decades.

Her turnaround is somewhere between the exception and the rule for students here. A survey of graduates from 1991 to 1996 found that 62 percent had gone on to postsecondary schools, and 29 percent had entered the military or found jobs.

The proportion of this year's soon-to-be graduates planning to continue their education is even higher, 77 percent.

As for test scores, 5th, 8th, and 11th graders here performed as well or better than other urban, poor students on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam in 1995.

At home, Frame says, many of these students would never show up for the test in the first place, let alone make it to college.

"When they get here, none of the kids are gifted and talented," says Frame. "Somewhere along the way, they turn around and end up at the University of Delaware."

Here's how: The average class size is 17. Discipline is mercilessly meted out according to a military-style system that classifies offenses from an untucked shirt to fighting. And the school is led by indefatigable administrators and teachers, many of whom have worked here for decades.

However, the school has its foibles, mostly because of an ever-shrinking budget that was nearly gutted by the state legislature in 1991. There are few extracurricular activities, and all the buildings need renovation.

And there are no permanent black teachers or administrators in a school where 90 percent of the students are African-American. Some parents and experts on residential schools say a more diverse staff would benefit children.

"It's important for kids to see themselves in the people they look up to," says Debra Simpson Buchanan, Chris' mother. But, she added, "I've been pleased. I like the stress on academics and the caring for children."

Jerry Stewart, the director of admissions, has the tough job of interviewing sullen children whose parents or guardians want to enroll them. No matter how troubled their homes and neighborhoods, most kids don't want to leave.

From hundreds of students who apply each year, the Scotland School admits about 100. They must be at least 6 and no older than 15.

Students also must be related to an honorably discharged veteran who has lived in Pennsylvania for three straight years. The school does not admit special education students or delinquents.

While looking for children who may be lazy students but show potential, Stewart hears a lot of sad stories. The two boys from Philadelphia whose younger brother was killed in a grocery store during a soured drug deal. The 12-year-old girl from Harrisburg who was severely abused.

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.

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.

"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.

Using or selling drugs or alcohol, using or carrying a dangerous weapon, stealing, and sexual misconduct fall under the school's 2-year-old zero-tolerance policy. Those offenses are grounds for expulsion.

"The hardest things for kids to stop doing are cursing and fighting, because that was a way of life before they came here," says Patty Klugh, a houseparent for 12 years. "With the zero-tolerance policy, they think twice before they fight because they know it means a trip home."

About a dozen students make that one-way trip each year. Last month, the school expelled a senior just two months from a diploma who cold-cocked another student after a basketball game.

"And I liked that kid," says Frame, exasperated. "I was going to take him to Ohio to look at a school. But he violated our values."

Those values--respect, kindness, responsibility, and excellence--are constantly drummed into the students and displayed on posters throughout the school.

"What are the values?" Hamilton, the principal, asks a high school senior sent to his office for talking during JROTC. "Which one didn't you meet?"

The same questions are asked by Frame and James Lowe, the acting director of student affairs, who meet weekly with students who consistently misbehave. "I've resigned myself to the fact that we can't save every child," Frame says. "We have high standards, and not everyone can accept the responsibility to meet them."

That goes for some parents, too. Many, like Tracy Morton of Philadelphia, have taken the time to meet their children's teachers and houseparents.

Morton enrolled her son, Calvin, after she saw her nephew mature at the school. "I'm secure in knowing that he's here and not running the streets," says Morton, an assistant administrator at a social services agency. She drove more than three hours to visit her son and attend a recent board meeting at the school.

But too many of the other mothers and fathers don't get involved.

Ask Virginia James, who heads the Parents' Association of Philadelphia and has served on the Scotland School's board of trustees since her grandson graduated in 1992. Only a handful of the Scotland parents who live in the city come to her monthly meetings.

About 60 percent of the school's parents visit on the three parents' days each year.

"We have some very caring parents, and some very poor parents," James says simply.

Starting next year, the parents of 12th graders will be required to visit at least once to discuss their children's graduation plans.

The school is governed by a board of nine trustees who are appointed by the governor.

At a recent board meeting in the school library, the agenda included a 10th grader who got pregnant, an April appearance by Gov. Tom Ridge at the opening of the new cafeteria, and fund raising by the school's new foundation.

Frame started the foundation in December after realizing the state's $1.8 million contribution to build a cafeteria wouldn't cover equipment. The foundation set out to raise $400,000 and has received $30,000 so far.

"We started out with furniture in mind, and we realized that we needed to do many things," says Lloyd Trinklein, the foundation's chief executive officer.

A loosely organized alumni association organizes campus gatherings once a year but has never sent out solicitations for money. For the first time, alumni have been invited to an off-campus reception at a Philadelphia hotel, which school officials hope will jump-start fund raising.

The school has always viewed the state as its caretaker. Legend has it that on Thanksgiving Day in 1863, Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin answered a knock at his mansion door. Two children begged for food, saying their father had been killed in battle and their mother had died.

Haunted by their desperation, Curtin used a $50,000 donation from the Pennsylvania Railroad to the Union Army to start an orphans' fund, and in the following decades the state opened more than 40 schools and homes for soldiers' orphans.

The state legislature in 1893 approved the purchase of 100 acres for $12, 000 to consolidate some of the orphanages into one school.

The Pennsylvania Soldiers' Orphans Industrial School opened in Scotland two years later. The word "orphans" was later dropped to avoid a stigma.

The only other existing residential school that traces its roots to the Civil War is the state-funded Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home, in Knightstown. Rising costs forced the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Home in Xenia to close in 1995 after 128 years. Even some of the dozen or so public residential magnet schools around the country have struggled to survive.

"The Scotland School is a real gem," says Heidi Goldsmith, the executive director of the International Center for Residential Education.

Like a proud father, Frame, who has worked here since 1967, points to photographs near his office of a former student who graduated from Lehigh University and another who plans to be a doctor. His occasionally abrupt demeanor suggests a stern disciplinarian; his kind, blue eyes reveal a man who loves children.

The 56-year-old educator is known to sleep with one ear next to a walkie-talkie linked to the nighttime security guard and the infirmary.

"No one works as hard as Mr. Frame," says Lowe. "When you think you've put in a long day and you're just about to sign out, the light in his office goes back on."

Frame, a native of Charleston, W.Va., holds a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University and a master's degree in education from Pennsylvania State University.

In February 1991, two months after Frame became superintendent, then-Gov. Robert P. Casey proposed dissolving the school over two years.

Frame mobilized veterans' groups, teachers, parents, and alumni to lobby state legislators to preserve the school's budget.

The school persevered, but at a high cost. Frame was forced to chop $1.5 million from the $9.1 million budget. He cut vocational-technical subjects such as carpentry, electronics, and print shop; fired several middle managers; and consolidated students in fewer cottages.

Though 1991 was the closest the school has come to the ax, its budget is always in jeopardy. This year, the school is hoping to receive the same amount of state aid as last year. Per-pupil costs are $25,402.

"There's always someone questioning why the state is in the education business," Frame says. "They say it costs as much to send them here as it does to Harvard. But a student at Harvard isn't clothed, fed, and watched-over 24 hours a day."

Vol. 16, Issue 33, Pages 26-29, 32

Published in Print: May 14, 1997, as A School Away From Home
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