The Day – Waterford Country School celebrates a century of caring for children

Waterford – When Ettie Thomas Schacht began her teaching career in 1909, she could not have imagined what the school she and her family started would become, or the impact it would have on so many lives . She has been hailed as innovative and effective, and recognized for her ability to teach children with special needs.

This year, Waterford Country School celebrates its 100th anniversary and since its inception, school leaders say it has defied societal norms and expectations. In its early years in New York, the school struggled with constant attempts to shut it down.

Accounts of the school’s history indicate that when told that his students with significant disabilities could not learn, Schacht taught them. When the family was told they couldn’t operate a school in a building zoned for boarding school, Schacht taught students on the porch, and when neighbors complained about the type of students going and came from school, the Schachts fought against prejudice with kindness.

Although much has changed since 1922, when the school was founded in New York, its leaders say the dedication to students has remained. The educational philosophy of its founders that students learn best through experience, that nature provides ideal learning opportunities, and that every child can learn – with the right methods and opportunities for success – continues to inform this who guides the school today.

All students today have learning disabilities, mental health diagnoses, or both, and many have encountered obstacles in life that can lead to challenging behaviors. Some come to school after being detained as juveniles or through the Department of Children and Families; others come because their local school district cannot provide the educational support they need.

Managing director Chris Lacey, a 24-year veteran of the school who accepted his new role in 2021, said: “They can have behavioral issues and they can be aggressive. They can run away. But if you go back pretty far in their history, they’re usually the same… They don’t like school because they never made it.”

Waterford Country School programs aim to provide a therapeutic environment for children to heal, grow and succeed.

“For 100 years, we’ve been here to help children and families,” Lacey said. He said the programs are a means to an end for the school, which prides itself on its motto, “Doing what’s right for children and families.”

Today, four sites

What began as a summer camp on a 98-acre farm in Waterford turned into a year-round school and in 1947 took over the New York school’s boarding program. The summer program was renamed Camp Waterford and continued to operate as a dual program for children with and without disabilities.

The first version of the Schachts’ integration was new and they didn’t know how to implement it, so they fell back on Ettie Thomas Schacht’s initial philosophy to create a new program from scratch. The flexibility and inventiveness needed to educate children with significant challenges still guides the school today as it continually evolves to meet student needs, according to school leaders.

Staff are constantly learning because “if we know better, we should be doing better,” Lacey said.

Known today as Waterford Country School, Inc., the non-profit organization is governed by a Board of Trustees. The school offers 10 programs at four sites, including a therapeutic foster care program and a children’s mental health clinic in Norwich, as well as parent centers in North Windham and Quaker Hill.

The main campus at 78 Hunts Brook Road has expanded to over 320 acres, with all the modern necessities of a boarding school that has 79 students from K-12, including 18 in their residential program. The school has 225 employees, with a maximum student/teacher ratio of 8:1.

It’s come a long way since staff and campers lived in military tents and used a hand pump to drink water, and Henry Schacht counted cards in poker games to win enough to pay staff. The school and its programs are funded today by local school systems, the state, private payers, and an endowment fund.

animal therapy

The school continues to embrace nature and outdoor educational opportunities.

Lacey said that through a farm and wildlife rehabilitation program, relationships between students and animals can open the door to relationships with staff. Staff often bring their dogs to work with them, said Lacey, who can often be found walking her golden retriever on campus. From the expected cows, goats and pigs, to the more exotic peacocks, to the baby owl or the turkey that needs to be rehabilitated before being returned to the wild, the approximately 200 animals provide students with comfort, safety and opportunities to be useful. and feel good about themselves.

Students spend a 45-minute class period on the farm each school day. French said it was a throwback to the founders, who emphasized real-world learning and using nature as a teaching tool.

“Before they decide they want to be here and love us, they’ve already found an animal they love,” said Elena French, assistant director of development. “That connection can happen instantly.”

The school had a student who had trouble reading and hated doing it. Despite this, he would go to the farm and spend time reading to his favorite animal, a giant Vietnamese pig who patiently sat and listened.

The therapeutic nature of the farm and wildlife rehabilitation program is essential, according to Lacey, since every WCS student has experienced some sort of trauma.

“We have children who need help to get better, and we have animals who need help to get better. We connect them. Children help rehabilitate animals and release them back into the wild. there’s a parallel there, whether they see it or not,” Lacey said.

Trauma-Informed Model of Care

Helping children get better is an evolutionary process. Beginning in 2010, the school’s long-used points-based behavioral program was turned on its head by a collaboration with Cornell University on a model to improve services and outcomes for children in residential settings.

For two years, every member of staff, including gardeners, kitchen staff and maintenance workers, was trained in the Cornell’s Children And Residential Experiences (CARE) model. They started from the principle that everything they do should have a purpose.

If they went to the movies, they asked what the purpose was.

“If the goal is to go to the cinema, and that’s part of their treatment – to go there and be successful – then if you don’t let them go because of something that happened last Tuesday, you’re taking things away from them. opportunities to do well in treatment and be successful,” Lacey said.

The idea that the odds of success were central to treatment was reminiscent of the Founders’ education model, so staff rejected the decades-old behavior modification system as they reflected on the original mission and threw himself head first into this new method.

French recalled a struggling student who tore up a newly planted flower bed, which upset the maintenance manager. French said the worker was told: “‘Don’t be too upset. This is a flowerbed for you, but this girl is going to struggle with her own mental health issues and her own trauma for the rest of her life. .” She said putting it into perspective made her change her mind.

The trauma-informed approach recognizes that difficult behavior often comes from a place of pain and that when a child learns to trust and feel safe, they can learn new coping mechanisms, develop healthy relationships and finding internal motivation to succeed.

As one of the first residential programs to adopt the CARE model, the school became involved in collaborative research with Cornell. Because the school had used its earlier behavioral program for decades, they had plenty of data that Cornell could use to verify the validity of the program. Lacey said the data showed the use of restraints and the need for mood-altering medication had decreased, and the children were doing better because staff were working better with them.

The school is an ambassador for the CARE approach, welcoming visitors from national and international programs interested in adopting the model.

“It merges Schacht’s history of working with children and families with modern technical research and data-driven insights,” Lacey said.

At the centennial celebration, Lacey and French say they hope to bring attention to the work they do and the success they have in changing the lives of the children they serve. In addition to the myriad of events planned this year, they are working to increase their endowment because they have big dreams. Among these, a new school.

“We’re jam-packed,” says Lacey, “Our next building project will be – and we’re only in the dreaming and visioning phase of this – we’re going to expand the classroom space, maybe even agricultural class space.”

Lacey talks about a fishing pier, a farm stand where students can sell farm produce, and a classroom attached to the kitchen.

“We want to formalize a lot of the work that our kids do with our maintenance guys and on the farm, some sort of (vocational-agricultural) program,” Lacey said. “Just like the work we were doing in the 20s and 30s.”

These plans for the future appear to bring the loop back to Waterford Country School, back to the radical methods of Ettie Thomas Schacht and the groundbreaking school the Schacht family worked so hard to create.

“It started out as a family giving life here, but it’s grown into a big social service agency that we want people to know about because there’s a need, and as the need grows, we grow. “, said French.

More information on centennial celebration programs, methods and events can be found on their website at

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