Ramblings of a Tampa engineer
woman walking on rail road
Photo by Johannes Plenio / Unsplash

A few days ago with some friends we were talking about Netflix shows like normal, but this time we talked about this recent documentary titled - "The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping". This was a 3 episode miniseries about the experiences of children sent away to boarding schools for troubled teens.


The documentary explores the timeline and experiences of many kids as they were forcibly enrolled into "The Academy at Ivy Ridge". This was a behavior modification facility in Ogdensburg New York that marketed itself as a boarding school with high school education accreditation targeting "troubled teens".

The film goes into all the details of how an academy fooled and abused the system issuing unauthorized high school diplomas. Once caught and stripped of that ability the school in the subsequent years went from 500 to under 100 students enrolled. It's assumed that parents could no longer utilize this facility for troubled kids if it didn't count as school. It ultimately then collapsed and was sold in 2009 and never re-opened. Oddly all the evidence was left behind in the abandoned buildings for this documentary to reference.

The film dives further into the market of for-profit businesses when dealing with troubled kids. Turns out a program known as "World Wide Association of Specialty Programs & Schools" (WWASPS) was behind most of these schools turning it into a lucrative business of roughly 100 million in profit a year. It tells the story from the perspective of many kids who were forcefully enrolled into a prison like school - expected to refine their behavior, but instead for most destroying their family and leaving the child with lifelong trauma.

Though this blog is more about the discussions our group had than this specific documentary since a few hadn't seen it yet. It turned out in conversation that nearly everyone knew of a similar type of program/school. So our conversation generally moved towards discussing our younger year education paths.

I'm from the Blue Valley School District system in Kansas - it was a combination of high schools spread out among town. It had:

  • Blue Valley High
  • Blue Valley North High
  • Blue Valley Northwest High
  • Blue Valley West High
  • Blue Valley Southwest High
  • Blue Valley Academy

I went to North and Southwest was finished being built when I was on my way out. If you plotted them on the map you'd end up with an image like this.

The school in the middle was "Blue Valley Academy" and it is not like the other schools. Kids often referred to it as "dumb school", which isn't really appropriate this many years later to still refer to it as. I say that because in Blue Valley North - we were a school that was constantly competing to be the best school in Kansas, winning a few Blue Ribbons (wiki page). For those unaware that is considered the highest honor an American school can obtain.

You had to do well in state testing to be considered for such an award and our school always did well. We did great because kids who rebelled or couldn't learn in the type of teaching were asked (or forced?) to switch schools to Blue Valley Academy. So of course their poor scores or behavior would not affect the main Blue Ribbon awarded school. I have no idea how the conversation went with the kids or parents, but I watched a few of my peers get moved to this school.

This wasn't a standard school though, because kids who attended the Academy would always be back at their main school for school assembly and after school events. Kids said some mean things about that school, but maybe the later start time and alternative style of learning did really resonate well with those who attended. For one friend who went there he talked about playing ping pong, very little class and only visiting for a few hours a day.

Someone else in the friend group had such a similar tale, but instead of an alternative school within a district it was a boarding school. We just kept chatting about schools and each one of our respective upbringing. It is not my place to tell the tale others said, but it seemed some friends went through some real odd/bad school arrangements - I felt bad for one in particular.

I talked about not only my Blue Valley schools, but the short stint of private schooling I did at Pembroke Hill. Immediately someone called out that I was rich and lived in wealth to be attending private school. Which sure enough after growing up, became apparent to me - I grew up in a wealthy area. When you hear about others or even live in other places it puts into perspective the experiences you had as a child. Just parents trying to do their best which sometimes is a private school and other times is a life-changing boarding school prison in the case of the Netflix documentary.

The progress report called out - "Connor still lacks maturity in his ability to control his impulses."

Pembroke was a fancy school compared to my later public schools and I can't forget one thing in specific to Pembroke. We were forced to walk in a single file straight line and not step on the grass when moving between buildings. We might have a teacher in front and back to ensure students kept pace and did not get lost. A bunch of tiny little kids keeping a straight line was tough to do - when we made mistakes we all waited to correct it.

Whether it was the cost or a different reason - I was pulled out of Pembroke and moved to a public school, then quickly a different public school because the school boundaries changed and I was asked to move schools.

As we talked we moved into the discussion of camps and someone mentioned they went to Kanakuk (K-2). That rung a bell to me, because I went to K-7 (Kanakuk) for a few years as a child. So now our conversation really ramped up trading stories about our time at a Christian camp.

My teepee at Kanakuk (K7)

We talked about our experiences at our respective camps and it was creepy how much I could remember once we started talking. Every morning cleaning our teepee and laying our respective bibles to a specified verse was our morning routine. We did morning prayers, prayers before an activity and after, before and after meals and prayers at night. I'm not sure how many times per day is a normal amount of prayer, but that felt like overkill to me.

One thing I disliked at Kanakuk outside of the many door-less outdoor bathrooms was anything religion based - I just wanted to do all the fun activities. Even if our competition was carrying large wooden crosses up a hill - to me it was just a challenge to compete in. Growing up though - one Kanakuk activity in particular I learned to dread.

Joe White K-Seven Teepees

After a long day of fun activities and cleaning our teepee for bed - our counselor told us to put on shoes and grab our bibles. For most kids - this is probably a blast to stay up later, but even as a kid I preferred early mornings and heading to bed on time. I didn't want to leave our teepee into the cool dark night - so the very first time walking through the woods with a small group was creepy. We would arrive at a fire in the woods with logs around it to sit with a few counselors waiting.

Looking back at it - it felt like it was intentional that it was near the last day of camp after many busy days of activities. It was probably a technique to tire out the kids so they would be more vulnerable to discussions. It would start with the counselors explaining that we all have sins and talking about them would cleanse us or some form of that. I would sit silently and listen to some kids spill some experiences, sometimes traumatic, and have the counselor claim faith was the way forward. I remember the first time in this being absolutely caught off guard and nervous that each and every kid might have to talk or cry.

I don't remember if I said anything or if I cried, but I do remember on the subsequent years that I knew I never wanted to do that type of activity again. Some may love exchanging deep feelings & experiences with others - I am not one of those. I just take it to a different extreme and blog about my experiences for the entire world to see.

All in all - Blue Valley Schools, Pembroke Hill, Kanakuk and even education I didn't mention (CAPS) made my childhood. Hearing others stories made it clear to me I could have had a far worse childhood. I was thankful to not have any traumatic experiences brought on via schools that would define my personality for a lifetime.

Exchanging stories like this with others over alcohol was strangely relaxing. It felt like every child has a journey that is more often than not arranged for them. You live it and experience it as the parent(s) intended. For some it was homeschooling, for others it was boarding schools, private schools, public schools, behavioral modification facilities, wilderness retreats or religious based camps. All the experiences combine for the best or worse to make you - you.

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