The Yellow Door Chronicles

On the corner of the campus, a school for special-needs students reaches a turning point in its history.

By Christina Pillsbury

Camille van Horne / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

May 27, 2011

Alexandra Hoffman’s artistic nature shows on her skin, in the various tattoos on her arms that she designed herself. She fidgets with her clothing and her jewelry when she talk, and runs her fingers over the scars on her arms—some new and some 10 years old—that showed her parents she needed professional attention.

Hoffman, 22, is now a senior at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA, where she studies psychology. Hoffamn struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. Partway through her freshman year at Evanston High School she was checked into Highland Park Hospital for a month. During her stay, a medication mix-up sent her into an extreme manic episode, and she snuck a razor blade into the ward inside a stuffed animal, intending to cut herself.

She was moved to Rogers Memorial Hospital’s residential program for depression, but it didn’t include an educational component and her disorder proved too much for public school counselors to handle. At her doctors’ recommendation, she was sent to the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School), a renowned but low-profile school affiliated with the University of Chicago. Located on East 60th Street, just west of South Dorchester Avenue, the O-School is considered one of the top residential school facilities in the country for emotionally disturbed students.

In each of the O-School’s seven classrooms, one instructor and an assistant teach nine students, all of whom are autistic or have been declared emotionally disturbed. Besides the math, science, and humanities curriculum standard at any school, O-School students spend a half-day every week in group therapy, a method of rehabilitation that its adherents credit for giving patients time to relate to one another, in part to take the shame away from their condition.

Hoffman settled in at the O-School. She had no choice, really—for her first two months, she had no contact with the outside world. She now says that the O-School saved her life, but when Hoffman checked in, she wasn’t prepared: “When a lot of kids come, because they’re adolescents, they come because they got put there, not because they said ‘I’m having a hard time, so I think I’m going to go to residential.’ No. It’s more like ‘You’re fucking up hardcore and you’re going to residential.’”

At the O-School, Hoffman met other students who also suffered from bipolar disorder, along with more dealing with schizoaffective disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and autism. As she set her belongings down in the dorm room that she shared with six other girls around her age, she noticed a poster of Jesus Christ next to one of Cradle of Filth, a goth band.

For Hoffman, still reeling from her merry-go-round of treatments, the sight was more comforting than disturbing, even though she felt she’d been branded as crazy. “There’s this need to be cared for—especially for me—as a crazy kid,” she said. “At the O-School, no matter what time of day or night it is, you can always find someone who will listen...But at the time I was just thinking ‘Thank God there’s crazy kids here, and I’m not going to be the craziest one!’”

The only remarkable feature on an otherwise standard-looking building on the Midway, the O-School’s yellow front door is its unofficial emblem. The school’s newspaper is called The Yellow Door Chronicles; the student-produced handbook for new students bears its image; alumni often give each other trinkets resembling the door; and recent grads, like Hoffman, have started tattooing the door onto their forearms.

In June 2014, after 84 years, the yellow door will be taken off of its hinges to reappear at the school’s new location a few blocks southwest. The nature of the O-School’s affiliation with the University is up in the air, meaning one of the last and oldest vestiges of a rich history in education research at the University may be set adrift.

The school’s trademark door and ornate rooms and residences, full of original art and antique furniture, are part of the legacy of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, an early director who established much of the school’s policy and operational procedures. The decor of the school reflects his theory that, for troubled children, an environment should look and feel much like a home as possible. “Spend some money and have some nice stuff around, like it was your own living room,” President of the school’s operational company Brooke Whitted said, elaborating on one of Bettelheim’s ideas. “These are kids you should treat with love, and part of what parents do when they love their kids, they have nice stuff around that is not institutional.”

Bettelheim declared the school an unlocked facility, unlike most other residential facilities for the disturbed. (Illinois requires that all institutions classified as schools be unlocked.) Students at the O-School can leave anytime they want, though doing so will trigger an alarm, and as they spend more time at the school, they earn leaving privileges, first in groups, then alone. “To make this school work, somebody has to want to be here,” said Peter Myers, one of the O-School’s two executive directors. “If someone needs to be locked in, there are other places that do that.”

The school also adheres to Bettelheim’s idea of milieu therapy, which emphasizes constant group interaction over one-on-one therapy. The O-School draws much of its national recognition from being the first school in the country to offer milieu therapy, Whitted said. The school measures success based on where its students go next; if it’s a lower level of care, home, a day school program, or college, it demonstrates success.

Having spent time in more conventional, one-on-one therapy sessions before arriving at the school, Hoffman was initially unsure about the effectiveness of milieu therapy, especially when she saw several students going into crisis, but through her time at the O-School, she saw its benefits. “The milieu really makes a big difference. I define it to myself as the static energy you get from everyone, and whether or not they click,” she said. “If the milieu is good, you don’t really need a therapist. It fuels itself.”

Once, Hoffman and her roommates were listening to a Prince album when another roommate jumped out of bed, grabbed the CD, and shattered it. “I had to save myself,” the roommate said. Hoffman and her roommates calmed the girl down and put her to sleep. Although staff intervenes in severe cases, students are expected to support one another through most crises.

In order to be accepted into the O–School, prospective students must undergo a variety of psychiatric and personality evaluations completed by an outside psychiatrist. The median IQ of O–School students is 120, according to Whitted, and 85 percent of graduates go to college. For Myers and his co-Executive Director Diana Kon, the academic program is a source of pride. “So many of our kids have not been challenged academically, they don’t see themselves as learners. It’s really intrinsic to development for them to see themselves academically,” Kon said.

Tuition at the O-School runs upwards of $130,000 a year for the 45 students who live there year-round, though Hoffman, along with approximately one quarter of students, received an Illinois Individual Care Grant, which funds a private school education for students who cannot attend public schools due to mental problems. Hoffman has friends from out of state whose families sold their houses to keep their children enrolled. The school’s tuition is set by the Illinois Board of Education, so it can’t offer scholarships.

In the morning, after eating breakfast with staff members in the large dining room below their dorms, students trek through a hall adorned with square stained glass windows that connects the living quarters to the school. They take classes and participate in individual extra-curricular activities, individual therapy, and field trips in Hyde Park. Blue lights in dorm rooms allow staff members to periodically check on students throughout the night, without interrupting their sleep.

Hoffman said she and other students came to see the O-School staff as family. A few months into her stay, Hoffman’s individual therapist left, leaving a hole in the fabric of the group; The abandonment issues experienced by many of the O-School’s students only deepened the sense of loss, Hoffman said. “They were like parents, they raised you. At the same time, that was the changing force, building those relationships and learning how to trust again, because so many kids have written off the world as a bad place.”

At 16, a year after enrolling at the O-School, Hoffman was able to demonstrate her ability to manage herself outside of the milieu setting, and she was moved from the common dorm rooms to the school’s less-supervised Transitional Living Center, which resembles a college dorm room. Hoffman was also allowed to take classes at Roosevelt University through its head-start program.

But the transition was hardly flawless. When Hoffman was close to leaving, she had a particularly difficult night, in which she locked herself in the bathroom with a sharp piece of metal she had confiscated, and ended up in the hospital to get stitches; one of her favorite counselors was able to talk her through the rest of the night. She said this is a common occurrence. “When a kid’s getting close to their time to leave, they start freaking out all the time,” she said. “The idea of losing all that support and people forgetting how much you hurt is really scary. So when people started to back away, I was thinking, ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!’”

Through its affiliation with the University, students from the School of Social Service Administration train at the O-School as counselors. Additionally, the O-School updates the University on its progress and collaborates on long-term schematic issues, and its students can use Ratner Athletic Center and the Regenstein Library. Being an affiliate “means that you have to make sure that you’re self-sufficient, but that there is a collaborative relationship with the University,” Whitted said.

Additionally, the O-School often accepts students from the Lab School, and provides psychological research opportunities for the University. For example, in the 1920s, student files from the O-School led to the release of a study by the University of Chicago’s Medical Advisor for Women and the physician for children at the University’s School of Education claiming that IQ is not static but can be increased with proper teaching. Today, O-School Medical Director of Psychiatry Louis Kraus is researching the over-diagnosis of bipolar disorder. “The more research that goes on in our institution the better, the more the University likes us…we then fit better into the academic mission,” Whitted said.

Yet that relationship is on the wane. The O-School was long operated by the University and a subcommittee from the University made decisions for the school. It was then a part of the education department, which the University phased out between the mid-nineties and 2001. In 1991, following the publication of a report that recommended that the University shut the O-School down, an administrative board including Whitted and a new board of directors was put in charge, giving the school a new degree of autonomy. Although Whitted praises the relationship between the two institutions, there were different feelings surrounding the relationship after the report was released. “I think the sentiment back then was that we didn’t fit into their mission,” he said. “While the Orthogenic School is a school, they’re troubled kids, and the University is more oriented towards the biological sciences and the nuclear accelerators.”

Two years ago, University and the O-School administrators met to discuss extending the lease. The University said it had other plans for the land. “We were not entirely surprised,” Whitted said. “We have what could be considered a big piece of land, and we were not unaware that other departments wanted that land.” University spokesman Steve Kloehn didn’t say that there is a plan for that land, but Whitted believes that neighboring buildings–including the South Campus Chiller Plant, erected in 2008–may be looking to expand.

Both sides maintain that their relationship is now “monumentally supportive,” according to Whitted. He said the relationship is strong enough that the kids are now up to date. The March 22 edition of the student paper, The Yellow Door Chronicles reported, “It just so happens the University needs our land in the year 2014, so we don’t really have a choice and...the University is working with us in a friendly way.”

The conditions of the affiliation with the University after the school moves off campus have yet to be determined. Kon stated that the terms have not been finalized, but Myers claimed that the affiliation will not continue, although the dissolution will be on friendly terms. Whitted, on the other hand, said that the U of C has long held a role in running the O-School, and that the affiliation will not be compromised. Kloehn said that the relationship has evolved over the years in a way that maintaining it makes sense for both institutions, especially since the SSA’s relationship with the O-School is not dependent on their proximity.

The announcement jump-started a long-considered project, according to Whitted, that would mean moving the O-School and the adjacent Hyde Park Day School, which is run by the same administration. Officially, the decision to move was made one year ago. Parents were informed six months ago, and students and the public in March. But the possibility has been long considered. Whitted said one of the continual problems in the past is that the building belongs to the University, so financing renovations was difficult.

The new building will be located between East 62nd and 63rd Streets on South Ingleside Avenue, and paid for by the school. The approximately $28-million move will be financed in part by students’ parents, some of whom have had experience with financial advising for nonprofits, and have pitched in to help the school find resources; according to Hoffman’s mother, parents were consulted on the location of the school. Kon and Myers said that staying within Hyde Park ended up a priority because the school has developed a relationship with the community, in which special education resources are scarce.

The new facility will be more technologically advanced, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, more accessible to needy members of the community, and able to hold up to 60 children in each school–currently the HPDS enrolls 40 students. Kon and Myers hope that the new school will be able to house a larger gymnasium–the current one is a small, all-purpose room—and a fine arts center. The school will keep Bettelheim’s homey feel in its layout, furniture, and artwork.

Hoffman, who stays connected to many of her former classmates, is conflicted about the O-School’s relocation. On one hand she wishes it were a perfect world in which “they would stay there and it would turn into a magical place where crazy kids frolic.” But she said the move might help her feel at ease should her future plans—to return to the school as an art teacher—come to fruition. “I think it would be so strange to be at the O-School but being the one holding the keys,” she said. “Them moving would make it easier for me to work there and not have that weird transference.”

But in terms of the University of Chicago affiliation, Hoffman said the relationship wasn’t transparent enough as a student. “U of C doesn’t really acknowledge that the O-School exists, or that it’s part of it, and the O-school doesn’t really have that much connection to the U of C,” she said. “You’d think that maybe the kids would be able to take classes at U of C, or that U of C students would do internships at the O-School, but there’s not that connection. There is that connection to Hyde Park.” Still, she thinks the University’s losing out because “it’s a gem within the mass that is the U of C. But the O-School will probably do alright without it because they’ve got such deep roots within the world of therapy.”