Compassion & Rigorous Curriculum

September 15, 2014

For high school students struggling with mental health issues so troublesome that their educational progress has been interrupted—sometimes for long periods—the Arlington School on the campus of McLean Hospital has been a lifesaver.

The school has 40 students—both boys and girls—enrolled each year in grades 9 through 12. Many have struggled with a variety of issues including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders. The issues often have caused them to miss significant school time.

“Arlington School is an accredited private high school for students with moderate to severe mental health issues whose needs can’t be met in a typical school setting,” says Suzanne Loughlin, director of the school, which has been open since 1961. “Some kids, for example, are so anxious they haven’t been able to go to school for months or more. It can be very hard for public school systems to meet the needs of these students in a large high school setting.”

Loughlin, a psychiatric nurse, was a clinician at the school for many years before taking over as director. The school often works with therapists, public agencies and schools in the communities where the students come from to address the issues that have interrupted their educations.

Students’ tuitions are usually paid for by the communities where they had previously been enrolled in school, so there is a wide mix of students from varied backgrounds. All are of average to above average intelligence, college-bound, and many are artistically gifted as well. Most are referred by their schools and live at home. Some are placed by their parents.

Arlington School classroom
One of many Arlington School classrooms

The school, which has 25 staff members, is located in an historic brick Victorian building on the McLean campus, but away from the other buildings where mental health programs are housed.

Arlington School is a college prep school, and most graduates go on to colleges, either two or four-year institutions. Eleven of last year’s 14 graduates went on to college. Each year a few students transition back to the high schools they had been attending before coming to the Arlington School.

Most students have been in treatment for their mental health issues before coming to the school and many have been hospitalized one or more times. The students continue to work with their own private mental health professionals while at the school but have weekly group counseling sessions at the school and regular individual check-ins with school-based clinical case managers, psychologists and social workers throughout each week.

“We become part of their treatment team,” Loughlin says, “but we are not on call 24/7. They have their own therapists, psychiatrists for medication prescriptions and in-home family services often through the state Department of Mental Health.”

Staff members meet multiple times each week to coordinate and come up with the best possible school program for each student.

“We have wonderful teachers and clinicians who connect with the kids and help them see a future for themselves as students,” Loughlin says. “A lot of the staff has been here for a long time and we know these students can be successful. We are very persistent. We keep trying things until we get it right.

“We are a small school and we can be flexible,” she says. “It is not a ‘one size fits all.’ We take time to know each student as an individual learner and establish relationships with them so they can begin to trust us and can let us know what is working and what is not. We listen to them and we believe them.”

The way the students bond with their teachers and the school is evident by the fact that many visit the school years later. One student, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, invited two of his teachers to his college graduation party, Loughlin noted.

Another key to the school’s success is that the students typically bond with the other students and make friends, something many have not been able to do because they have been out of school for long periods.

“Our student body is in some ways more mature than typical high school students because they have had to confront problems at an earlier age,” she says. “The students are very welcoming, compassionate and understanding of each other.”

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