BY DANIEL VICTOR
Of The Patriot-News
Of the ways Deborah Griffin’s life wouldn’t have been the same without her eight years at the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children, chief among them is that she would have never known what a fishing rodeo was.
You don’t see ponds in inner-city Philadelphia, where in her early years she struggled through public school and a dangerous neighborhood. Nor do you see ducks or rows of blooming flowers or the grassy hills of central Pennsylvania or an abundance of teachers who make students believe they care deeply about them.
Now she has a love of fishing, a strong network of alumni friends, a college degree and a job as a housing inspector for the city of Philadelphia — none of which she thinks would have been possible without the taxpayer-funded school.
So the thought of the Franklin County residential school being axed because of the state’s budget crisis was devastating for her.
Shutting its doors would save the state $10.5 million. The Rendell administration says it simply can’t afford the costs. The state spends $45,000 per student at Scotland each year, compared with $11,000 per child in public schools.
But the possibility of the school closing is heartbreaking for its alumni and the parents of Scotland’s children.
“They gave me a chance to succeed and become somebody,” said Griffin who graduated in 2000. “This is our life. This is our family. There’s no way they can close it.
“Oh, my God, it hurts. I was in tears the other day when I was told they were closing. That’s all I knew, and that’s all a lot of us knew. They were our rock. There’s no way we can do without it. There’s no way the community, that Pennsylvania, can live without it.”
Alumni and parents are fighting to save the school, which serves at-risk children of veterans. Dozens of alumni called The Patriot-News to describe how the school instilled discipline, gave them a family and saved them from wreckage.
Many of them said they wanted to someday send their own children there. Unless the school finds money soon, its 114th graduating class will be its last, and 186 employees will lose their jobs.
Why it could close
The school’s $13.5 million budget comprises $10.5 million from the state, $2.4 million from school districts and $500,000 from the federal government.
Under Gov. Ed Rendell’s proposed budget, about $1.4 million would be redirected to veterans programs, said Joan Nissley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The rest of the savings would be absorbed into the general budget.
“It’s too great a cost for too few students who are actually enrolled in the school,” Nissley said.
There are 1.1 million veterans and active-duty service members in Pennsylvania and 288 children at the school, Nissley said. In light of the growing deficit in the state, Rendell had to look hard at every program, she said.
Scotland is one of the last remnants of what was once a national trend.
Heidi Goldsmith, the executive director of the Coalition for Residential Education in Washington, D.C., said most states built similar schools after the Civil War.
Only two remain: Scotland and the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home. That, too, is fighting for its life in the Indiana state budget process.
Scotland costs a lot of money, but Goldsmith has urged state officials to seek improvement or better efficiency instead of closure, calling it a “treasure that most states do not have.” Having to fight the battle is why she urges new residential schools to seek private money, like the similar Milton Hershey School, which is paid for by the $5.9 billion Hershey Trust Co.
“I say do not rely on public funding because when times get tough, the poor children get cut,” Goldsmith said.
The town’s identity
Who will buy Little Vince’s pizza?
For the 15 years Mike Anzalone has been in business in tiny Scotland, it’s been the teachers, the students ordering in, the parents visiting their children. There’s not much business elsewhere.
Take that school away and you’re not just cutting into his business; you’re also losing much of the character of the town.
“When you think of Scotland, that’s what you think of,” said Lisa Keefer, 28, who arrived from Chambersburg three years ago to find a quieter place. “It’s the only big thing in this town.”
Ten minutes northeast of Chambersburg, Scotland has a few mom-and-pop shops on Main Street, a community center, a post office, a township office and an elementary school. Otherwise, it’s mostly filled with houses, where people have planted themselves for generations or moved to so they can enjoy the peace.
The school, with its 183 acres and 70 buildings, takes up a huge chunk of the town but largely remains tucked away by itself. Most residents said they rarely interacted with the students, except when they watched the renowned sports teams. Some would congratulate the players when they were spotted in the nearby Chambersburg Mall.
Martha Whitsel, working at Scotland Automotive, said the school adds more than business to her town.
“Maybe a little prestige,” she said. “That you can extend the education to those who need it, that they have the chance to have a good education. I’m just proud.”
Robert Smith, the postmaster of the local post office, which features a mural of the school in its lobby, said he aches for the many people he’s met who attended or worked for the school and fears what will happen to the campus.
“It’s hard to believe they’re actually closing it,” he said. “That just really shows how bad the times are. It’s really hitting close to home.”
The impact on students
Most of the students come from difficult urban environments, with about 70 percent of them from Philadelphia.
Scotland School alumni said they often think about where they’d be had they never gone to the school.
Randell Williams, a 2004 graduate, thinks he would have never gone into the Army, he said just weeks before he’s due to ship out for a year in Afghanistan.
Shirlee Patterson, a 2005 graduate, thinks she’d be fighting like the girls on her street where she grew up, or she’d be in jail. “That’d be the total opposite of the person I am now,” she said.
Daniel Woodlin, a 1996 graduate, doesn’t see his Columbia University diploma, his job as a manager for the Vanguard Group, his wife or his two kids without the school.
“You grow from a boy to a man, fast,” said Marcus Spence of Philadelphia, who graduated in 2007.
Melanie Nichole Pollard-Alford’s father was a Marine, serving two tours in the Gulf War. She said he developed emotional issues that left him unfit to care for her, and she ended up in the foster care system in Bucks County.
There, she said, she had no support system. It’s difficult to think of how she would have turned out if she hadn’t spent her high school years at the Scotland School, she said.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone to college. I probably wouldn’t be married. I probably would have had children early,” she said. “To say that I would have graduated from high school would have been a stretch.”
Now she works in financial aid at Mercer County Community College, and her job feels meaningful. She’s giving back to the community — something she learned at the Scotland School, she said.
When Gerald Robinson came from Philadelphia, he said, he had low standards. He rarely attended school and was getting in trouble.
But the Scotland School atmosphere turned him into a B student. He went on to college, is getting a degree in business administration, and works as a retail manager.
“It forces you to really find out who you are, as opposed to just staying in Philadelphia,” Robinson said.
Dozens of alumni said they learned discipline and structure. They felt loved by their teachers and classmates. Some said it kept them out of prison. Some said it saved their lives.
They knew they’d get at least one Christmas gift per year, something like a Barbie doll, an alarm clock or a lamp.
Diallo Daniels was just happy he was allowed to bring books home with him to read, which he couldn’t do at his Philadelphia school.
Kimberly Duncan thinks back to the big prom night, when a line of classmates would watch everyone else emerge in their fancy dress.
“That’s how they treated you,” she said, “like a big red carpet.”