Finding Community, Purpose, and Healing at the Arlington School

April 12, 2021

Some days, Patrick Lovelace couldn’t make it until 3pm at his large public high school, and he’d call his mother to pick him up early. Other days, he refused to go altogether. His anxiety was crippling; healthy relationships were hard to nurture.

So, when his family proposed that he check out McLean’s Arlington School, a small, therapeutic high school on the grounds of the hospital, Patrick was hesitant but ultimately agreed. The visit was anxiety-provoking—the building looked different than imagined, how would it feel to not graduate with the kids in his neighborhood?—but he agreed to enroll.

The school changed his life. “Within a few months, it became my home. I found a community of students like me who had a difficult time in school because of trauma, mental illness, or substance use,” recalled Patrick. “We did our best to support each other, hold each other accountable, heal together, and grow into people who could graduate and lead successful lives.”

In May, Patrick, 22, will graduate from Suffolk University, with a major in public relations and a minor in arts administration.

Like Patrick, Sean Dolan found a home at the Arlington School, and the young man—nicknamed “the gentle giant” for his 6’2” stature, easy hugs, and protective nature—thrived, according to his mother, Janet. Having been diagnosed with bipolar depression during elementary school, Sean struggled until he joined the Arlington School community.

“The love, compassion, and support he found at the school fostered a sense of hope and success that he had not experienced any other time in his academic career,” she said. An extremely hard worker, he graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice and later took courses for additional certifications.

While depression continued to affect all aspects of his life, he found joy in his family, friends, karate, and his job. But in 2012, at age 27, he took his own life.

As a gift to Janet, Sean’s father, Jim, began giving a yearly college scholarship to an Arlington School senior, and that single scholarship eventually became two. “It’s our way of paying it forward,” explained Janet. “Sean’s love for the school became our love for the school. We wanted to honor Sean and help other students achieve their dreams of continuing their educations.”

A Warm, Flexible Place to Learn

Building a therapeutic, supportive community is as deliberate as it is organic, according to Director Suzanne Loughlin, APRN, BC.

Enrollment is limited—about 40 students a year—and each student is assigned to a school mental health clinician whom they see frequently throughout the week. Teachers teach, and clinicians counsel, but everyone pitches in to do what needs doing, taking students on walks, advising clubs, planning events, or serving lunch, which students and staff eat together.

And when students struggle to stay focused, teachers are understanding, allowing them to take breaks or leave class to read quietly, engage in coping strategies, or meet with their clinician, for example.

“We’re more of a relationship-based program than a traditional behavioral program, which means lots of talking and negotiating,” explained Loughlin. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations, but our goal is to come to resolutions based on acceptance and respect.”

Teachers tend to stick around—some have been there for decades—and the school building is a cozy brick Victorian, originally built as a patient’s residence.

Teacher with media arts students

Arlington School students benefit from rigorous academic and clinical support

Because in-person interaction is so critical to the school’s therapeutic milieu, and many students have lost touch with friends in their communities, the pandemic has been tough, said Loughlin.

The school was fully remote at the start of the pandemic, and then in July 2020, the doors opened part-time. Beginning in March 2021, the school returned to a hybrid model where students will attend in person 3 days per week.

The Arlington School was established in 1960 to educate the adolescents hospitalized at McLean. (Until the late 1950s, the hospital didn’t admit patients younger than 17.)

McLean Director Emeritus Francis de Marneffe, MD, in collaboration with social worker Golda Edinburg, MSW, founded the school, which initially enrolled fewer than two dozen students. With the advent of managed care and the reduction in hospital lengths of stay, the school began accepting day students.

Today, Loughlin says the school’s biggest challenge is its physical plant, which is loaded with charm, but not ideal for a 21st-century school. The rooms are small, and the facility lacks sufficient lab and common space. All-school gatherings take place in a small science lab.

The building’s challenges, however, are dwarfed by the school’s strengths, beginning with its staff, according to Loughlin. “I can’t say enough about how dedicated the staff is,” she said. “It’s emotionally challenging work because at times you have to bear witness to students’ overwhelming sadness and discouragement. But you also have the pleasure of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and believing in their futures.”

Long-time donor Ellen Ratner, a successful journalist and author, can testify to that. Her time as an Arlington School student decades ago was transformational. And while the faculty often give students a vision for the future, they need additional support for that next chapter.

“I have supported the Arlington School Scholarship Fund for years because I want other students to have the opportunity to attend college and achieve their goals the way I did,” Ratner said.

Longtime Donor Helps Establish Climate Science Program

In addition to student scholarships, families have given back to Arlington School in many different ways. A recent gift from the van Otterloo Family Foundation, whose focus is education, will support the creation of a climate science program.

The gift covers start-up costs that include the purchase of a movable outdoor classroom, staff salaries, student activities, and the resurrection of the school garden.

“The proposal was innovative and well thought out, so our foundation is delighted to support it,” commented Rose-Marie van Otterloo, whose family has long supported the hospital and has always had a fondness for the Arlington School. “The work of the school is very important, and their funding sources are limited, so private donations are critical.”

To make a gift to the Arlington School, contact Ben Ogilvy at 617.855.3623.

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