Small Edgecomb boarding school makes big impact on teenage boys’ lives

Deck House School’s unique program tailored for at-risk students’ educational needs
Posted:  Friday, December 15, 2017 - 7:00am

The panoramic view from 124 Deck House Road in Edgecomb is breathtaking. One sees an amazing overhead scene of the Sheepscot River winding its way through Lincoln County. But the view isn’t the main reason hundreds of teenage boys from around the country have traveled  to Edgecomb since 1978.

They come for an an individualized high school program designed for their special needs and circumstances. These students come because they are floundering in their current academic setting. The Deck House School provides them with a home-based program focusing on their academics and life skills.

Most Deck House students need special attention because they’ve had problems at home or fitting in at a large metropolitan public high school or small private boarding school. The Deck House has between six and 12 students per semester. Typically, a student will stay one to two semesters; a few remain for one or two years. The curriculum is based on a student’s individualized education plan. Students attend classes in either a one-on-one setting or in small groups. The students may also take several online courses to reach their academic requirements.

While the school provides individualized programs, there has been one thing in common for every student since 1978. The school’s mission is the same for everyone. The program includes academics, co-curricular, community service and life skills. The curriculum provides students a great deal of freedom which allows them to mature and develop life skills as they make progress toward a high school diploma and prepare for college.

Besides academics, students learn life skills by doing their own cooking and cleaning in their house. Students spend each Wednesday doing community service by either providing technical assistance at the Boothbay Harbor Community Center to seniors needing assistance with their laptop computers or working at a Bath soup kitchen. Students also cultivate their interests in a specific field, trade or hobby by working with and learning from a community member.

For 16-year-old Dylan Reeves of Chicago, the school has made a major difference in his ability to succeed in school. He struggled at a 3,500-student high school prior to arriving in Edgecomb. “The freedom here makes all the difference,” Reeves said. “It’s a better fit for me because it really cuts all the crap out of your life.”

There are several small individualized high school boarding schools around the country, but there weren’t many when The Deck House School began, according to Headmaster Bar Clarke. The school was created by Ned Hall, who had spent three decades as headmaster at prestigious northeast prep schools Saint Marks in Southborough, Massachusetts and The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Hall was preparing to change his Edgecomb summer home into a year-round residence when a phone call changed his plans. A colleague who was a headmaster at another prep school asked for Hall’s assistance with a student in danger of not graduating. Hall assured his colleague he would make sure the male teen graduated on time. 

This began The Deck House School’s long tradition of tailoring a special educational program designed to meet a student’s needs. Hall soon changed his plans of adding a deck to his Edgecomb house and decided to operate a small boarding school designed to assist struggling male teens with challenges regarding academics and life skills.

The school has a small staff charged with managing students’ development. In 1989, Clarke began his tenure at the school as a housemaster. Clarke had recently graduated college with a degree in theater. He planned on using his education to direct plays in Seattle, but a visit to Edgecomb with a friend, who was a Deck House alumnus, changed his plans.

“I had a conversation with Ned, who I didn’t know was this icon in education, and he sold me on using my skills as a director to come here and direct the lives of theses students,” Clarke said.

Clarke remained at school for a few years before deciding to travel and teach in Africa. He eventually returned to the school. Clarke said the school has changed over the past four decades, but one thing remains steadfast: The school’s mission.

“It remains an environment for young men struggling in the academic mainstream. That has never wavered,” he said. “Whether the student has academic indifference or a parent-child conflict issue or any sort of depression or anxiety issues, this place has provided an opportunity for these young men to find success.”

Like most private boarding schools, tuition isn’t cheap. Tuition is $55,000 per year, according to school officials. The school also does local fundraising and seeks alumni donations to pay operating expenses.

The school has established a solid record of proven results which is why educational consultants continually recommend the school to their clients. As headmaster, Clarke works with consultants across the country to see if the school is a good fit for prospective students. Joshua Doyle is an educational consultant with Massachusetts firm Leslie S. Goldberg & Associates.

He began sending clients to the school based on a colleague’s recommendation. “He raved about The Deck House School for young men who need guidance,” Doyle said. “It provides a small family setting unlike any other school I work with. Many of the students I work with need help and support, but are not in need of a clinically driven therapeutic boarding school. Deck House teaches students the importance of relationships and gives them a normalized experience.”

The school’s greatest success may be in its alumni who return and want to share their experiences with current students. Housemaster Calvin Mills graduated in 2013. He moved to Alaska and worked as a mountaineering guide for over three years. When Mills, 22, heard the school had an opening six months ago, he applied. As the housemaster, Mills’ main duty is “acting like the students’ big brother.”

He makes sure chores get done, medication is taken, and homework is completed. Mills is from North Carolina and wanted to return to the school due to his affection for it and Maine. He has no plans to seek another job.

“I will stay as long as they will have me,” Mills said. “The people around here are good and I love the scenery. I also enjoy watching the kids grow. Many of them are ones society almost gave up on, and seeing how they grow and develop, as people, is great.”

If Clarke ever needs to find more staff, he probably won’t have to look very far. Reeves said he would like to work at the school once he graduates.