A school for students who need a home away from home

From the banks of the Kennebec River, across the twisting path of Route 201, a 2,500-acre tract of prime Maine woods and bottomland stretches forth to form a typically New England rural campus.

Within the big brick schoolhouse and the cluster of cottages scattered among the whistling pines and open fields, a vital educational process is taking place.

The educational concept that continues to be tested here is neither new nor revolutionary. In fact it is just the opposite. The guiding principles are the old and time-honored virtues of home, hard work, and responsibility.

This is the Hinckley Home School, founded in the 1880s by the Rev. George W. Hinckley as a goodwill farm. Today, the children who find their way here are generally 11 to 14 years old and come from broken homes. They are not classified as delinquent, but they do exhibit behavioral problems associated with an unstable home environment.

The school remains as it has always been, a working farm.

Students live here year round and help with necessary chores that range from milking the herd of 48 cows, to splitting wood and stoking the wood-burning stoves. The different jobs are performed on a rotating basis, and all help out in the summer when the two hired farmhands need assistance for planting and harvesting.

But the school isn't a vocational training center. The responsibility learned is as important as the job performed.

Yet Hinckley isn't just a school or a foster home either. And there is no underlying philosophy that regards one aspect of the school's functions as more important than any other. In the words of Robert Pfeiffer, the principal, "It's one big parcel."

There are three teachers and three aides for the 22 boys and eight girls. To maintain the vitally important atmosphere of home, the young students live in groups of four to six in cottages with "cottage parents," usually young couples whose main duty is counseling.

The school's curriculum covers the customary subjects, but the studies are geared to the individual child's needs, so teaching ranges from second grade reading to tenth grade science. Classes are held during the day, and the various chores each child is responsible for are performed before and after school.

Sixty-seven percent of the students are state wards, either orphans or abandoned children. The other 33 percent are private referrals, usually from foster parents or a single parent who finds a child unmanageable. The school is a private institution but is funded largely by the state.

Hinckley underwent a drastic change in the 1960s. As a private school with a good reputation, it began to evolve into something of a prep school with all the trimmings. "We had to get rid of the lacrosse," says Mr. Pfeiffer, "and get back to the original charter."

That meant paring the enrollment from 100 to its present size and concentrating on the neediest cases.

Though Mr. Pfeiffer's mention of lacrosse is just an example, even the sports program at the rural school conforms with the precept that all activity should strive to foster self- confidence in the youngsters. The result is an athletic program that stresses noncompetitive sports.

Another important element in an education at the Hinckley School is the spiritual component so often missing from the students' previous home life. In the chapel on campus nondenominational services are held each week and visiting ministers and clergymen are invited to speak with the students.

Students generally stay one to three years. When they are ready, they either return to their own homes, if they have any, or are placed in foster homes, if they have any, or are placed in foster homes. Some graduate to similar schools with higher grade levels, and a few that can't be reached are remanded to state custody.

The battle for funding is a constant one, but Mr. Pfeiffer hopes to keep the school on its present course despite the looming economic problems. "The need is growing for this type of facility," he says. "There are very few adequate foster homes to make up the difference."

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