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School seeks to turn lives around

Frank Fisher, Of the Record staff

The head of an exclusive private prep school speaks of his past graduates:

"One third of our kids leave here and struggle — with their training wheels off they wobble. A third do great and soar. One third fall flat on their face very quickly — and then pick themselves up very quickly."

Not your typical graduating class. Then again, this is not your typical high school. James Meyer, the executive director of the Oakley School, sees this school as possibly the archetype of future education.

These are kids who have not made the best choices in life, have likely been in residential treatment centers, some in intervention programs, and they are now here, at the Oakley school to pull it all together.

The therapeutic school, as it is called, looks like a hunting lodge rising from a valley with a backdrop of mountains. It is found just outside of Oakley. One hundred or so students in grades 9-12 from every part of the country attend this boarding school, where the ratio of staff to pupils is about one to one.

Some might believe students attend the Oakley School only to receive help. But Oakley students are more likely to be found giving help to others — as they learn to help themselves through making proper choices.

"These are very bright, very verbal kids," Meyer said. "In my life I’ve learned more from what I’ve done wrong than what I’ve done right. But what defines you is how you deal with your mistakes."

"They’re here for a variety of reasons," said Oakley experiential educator, Bethany Elson, "some are in need of psychological, social or academic help. And there are geniuses who haven’t applied themselves. Put them together, and you have an interesting mix."

On Thursday, 45 Oakley pottery students taught by Elson, sold their works at a school fundraiser/dinner, with the proceeds to benefit the Utah Food Bank’s Kid’s Café, and the Heifer Mission, a non-profit organization that works with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth.

The bowls that were sold were used by the buyers to hold their dinner soup. Many of the purchasers of the bowls were fellow Oakley students. Oakley junior Jeff Abrams buys a pottery bowl during the fundraiser. "Five dollars is not a big price to pay to help someone out in the world."

Students mingled before dinner. What was apparent, most were engaged in conversations, smiling, laughing and interacting with people around the room like a big family. In essence, the Oakley school becomes a big family.

But student Sara Egan, a sophomore from Chicago said, "I’d rather be home. Sometimes it gets dramatic." She doesn’t like Utah, but loves to swim, and that and basketball are her favorite activities she takes part in through the school. "I used to be a really good swimmer," she said.

Oakley School Alumni Devin Boyer returned to the school for the fundraiser, one and one half years after graduating.

"I was here 15 months," she said. "It changed my entire life. Honestly. I know that sounds kind of cheesy. The teachers here are amazing. They are always there for you." Boyer is now a graphic arts major in college, and volunteers, teaching drug and alcohol rehabilitation classes. "When you leave here, it’s not like you’re done."

Students live in dorms, a boys and girls, with no coed socializing in the dorms, but activities the rest of the day are coed. Four students share one living area and share one bathroom. They help with chores and do their own laundry. And they help each other. And help others outside their sphere.

One of the most important aspects of the Oakley School, according to Meyer and Elson is volunteer work in the community. In fact it is a requirement of every student. Some students mentor kids at Franklin Elementary School in Salt Lake, a Title 1 school, receiving extra Federal funding to help students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Others work with the Kids Café, of the Utah Food Bank, to name a few.

The education we offer here is second to none," Meyer said. "I really believe that. We are here to help. Our kids are great at giving. They’re some of the best kids around. Our parents are some of the most supportive, giving parents."

Parent Gini Van Siclen drove from Idaho Falls for the fundraising dinner, and to spend time with her son. She was excited. "Tonight is the first time he has played in a band," she said of his performing for the function. She also said, "this is the first time in a long time he has been successful in school." She was complimentary of the teachers and staff, and likes that "the teens can express who they are, but they definitely have boundaries," she said. "I think every teen would benefit from this environment." But she does miss her son very much, and visits him whenever she can. She said the Oakley school involves the parents a great deal. "You’ll work," she said, as an involved parent. They phone me, email me, and involve me in decisions." But that is a kind of work she seems to long for.

"These parents love their children so much. It’s so hard to hand them over to someone else," she said. " But with that comes so much hope. You can be happy and sad at the same time. He’s not playing music in the basement at home, but he can learn to make good choices and live a wonderful life."

The Oakley school is accredited, and divided into four categories. Academic excellence, emotional well-being, recreational learning and a productive student life. Meyer said he wants to make sure each student reaches a balance with "all four of those cylinders firing."

The Oakley school is expensive, with a tuition of $5,800 per month. But Meyer believes the benefits students and their families get from the experience far outweigh the cost.

Meyers said they are near their capacity of 128 students. "We don’t have an endowment to fall back on. We have to perform day in and day out."

Scholarships and grants and financial aid are available, "but we don’t do that right off the bat," he said. "We like to see how they are doing first."

Although Meyer said that no one ever convicted of a felony, including with drug abuse, will be admitted to the Oakley School, still, the question arises, will colleges accept students who have fought daemons in their life and triumphed?

Meyer said colleges show great interest in Oakley students, who have overcome problems, have good grades, have done a great deal of community service, and have "been there and done that" when it comes to freshmen having freedoms that come with living away from home.


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