The Birchwood School (Rockland County, New York) is a highly successful day school predicated on the therapeutic milieu model. The school, founded in 1984, provides a highly structured and individually tailored program of remediation and therapeutic intervention. Enrolled in the school are 80 elementary, intermediate and high school-level students whose emotional difficulties necessitate a special educational setting with a range of related services to meet their unique management, academic, physical, and social needs. The students present a variety of diagnostic disorders, including childhood schizophrenia, learning disabilities, adjustment disorders (eg. depression, borderline, eating, and conduct disorders), and school phobia.
The Birchwood School is part of the Clarkstown Central School District and is located in a parklike, spacious country setting. Students who require a more intensive program are referred to the Birchwood School, which is the district's most restrictive environment. Birchwood also accepts students from districts throughout Rockland County who are referred by their local Committee of Special Education. The tuition is paid by the home school district.
At Birchwood, there are 10 classes (from kindergarten through 12th grade) of eight students with one special education teacher and one teaching assistant. The elementary, intermediate, and high school programs offer an innovative curriculum wherein the methodologies, support systems, modifications, and specialized instructional materials are designed to respond to the emotional and academic needs of each student. These needs are specified on each student's individualized education program (IEP) and are determined by psychological and psychoeducational testing, as well as by direct classroom observation.
High school diplomas are issued through the home school district, and a Birchwood school counselor coordinates the curricular standards of the home school with the needs of each student through direct contacts with counterpart school counselors. All courses are directly comparable or equivalent to state- and district-established curricula. At the high school level, academic programming is offered on the Regents, local and IEP levels. In addition, career exploration, vocational assessments, and career counseling are provided. Students can participate in Board of Cooperative Educational Services courses, paid work experience, or college placement on a part-time basis. Birchwood also provides a diversified work program, wherein students are provided a structured, supervised work experience and related classroom instruction. Through the combination of daily classroom instruction and on-site supervision by a certified teacher-coordinator, students can develop basic employment skills.
Multidisciplinary Team Approach
Psychotherapy is provided at Birchwood by two full-time social workers and four psychologists. A psychiatrist is available for consultation two days a week. Each student receives individual therapy with a clinician at least once a week, and every parent is involved in some form of regular counseling. Parents are seen for counseling about once a month.
Because clinicians offer early morning and evening appointments, nearly 98% of the families participate in the monthly counseling at Birchwood. If families are unable to physically come in, the therapists will make home visits.
Clinicians use the psychosocial, or ecosystems approach, which is based on the premise that a young person does not exist in a closed system but is rather a microcosm within his or her world at large. Most students at Birchwood have one or more of the following problems: intrafamilial difficulties, long-standing problems functioning in their previous school placements, or dysfunctional relationships with their peer groups and with the community at large.
As a result of providing intensive multidisciplinary services (for example, special education, individual therapy, and family counseling), many students have significantly improved academically, behaviorally, and functionally within the family system; more than 20 percent of the total student population is able to be partially mainstreamed into regular public school.
Climate and Philosophy
The clinical orientation of the Birchwood School is woven into the fiber of the school in many formal and informal aspects. The teachers and clinicians communicate in regularly scheduled meetings, where each section (elementary, intermediate, high school) meets with the clinicians and the principal one hour a week to discuss students who are having difficulties. Through this team approach, the staff members discuss concerns and cooperatively resolve issues.
The success of the Birchwood School is related not only to a sophisticated methodology of special education techniques and clinical approaches, but also to a positive environment. The school has cheerful murals on the walls and attractive classrooms and offices. Students and teachers eat lunch together in the classrooms in a family-type setting, which stimulates a closeness between students and teachers and reinforces positive socialization skills.
The positive school climate, which is an integral component of a school's success, is communicated by the staff members, from the principal to the custodian. Staff members are warm and caring. A human relations committee, and similar groups meet regularly to address any difficulties or miscommunications. Suggestions are always welcomed and are received with an attitude of respect and appreciation.
Acceptable behavior is clearly defined, and students who break the rules are not responded to with punitiveness but rather with firmness and the attitude that students can learn from their mistakes and grow. Behavior modification programs are used to support the therapeutic environment.
Students and families feel safe at Birchwood and know someone is always available to help. A clinical network provides emergency clinical services on holidays and vacations. Families know that staff members are available to offer practical assistance and understanding.
What makes the program so unique is not only the high caliber of professional staff, but also some of the more subtle ingredients, such as the fact that the clinicians and many of the home room teachers have been together as a group for many years. This cooperative team approach towards students provides a maximum level of adult warmth and supportiveness.
In conclusion, the Birchwood School's program has consistently offered superior educational and therapeutic services, which has enabled emotionally handicapped children to be successful after leaving the school. Students who graduated many years ago still pay periodic visits (sometimes with spouses and their own children) to demonstrate and share their successes and to "touch base" with adults who have been warm and supportive. These visits are the true indicators of a highly successful psychotherapeutic day school program.