ORIGINS: A Look at the Evolution of the O-School
For just over a century, the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, also referred to as the O-School, has been providing a safe haven and pathway to hope for children and adolescents with extraordinary difficulties by helping them achieve extraordinary success.
Historically, the O-School has been associated with a leading hospital or institution of higher learning so that emerging theories and practices could be utilized. Equally important, the school initially was considered a laboratory of sorts that generated its own cutting-edge ideas and skilled educators and clinicians to achieve a significant impact on the fields of education, child and adolescent development, and mental health. The O-School has long been viewed nationally, as well as internationally, as one of the founding residential treatment centers.
As part of Rush University Medical Center in the early 1900s, the O-School became one of the first schools to work with children who had otherwise been deemed ‘too damaged’ to be educated. Initially, the school was established as a day school to observe children whose behavior was considered “aberrant.” When parents of these children expressed a need for respite and a place for their children to stay at night, the school began to provide residential services.
The school was one of the first to investigate the correlation between intellectual functioning and readiness to learn with extensive supports carefully orchestrated throughout all the hours of the day. With students living both at home and at the school’s residence, some experimental work was completed that demonstrated the concept that intellect is not static. This helped open up many educational opportunities for children who had previously not benefited from school settings.
This work enabled practitioners to build on the then revolutionary concept that even children with “aberrant behaviors” or “impairment” deserved and could benefit from education. This residential program created a foundation for learning more about the methods and approaches of caring for and nurturing children both outside of and within the classroom setting. This was pivotal in beginning to grasp, identify, and study this interrelationship.
In this capacity, the O-School served as a laboratory for scientific and educational work that focused on the study of child development. The school’s former location at 60th Street and Dorchester Avenue on the University of Chicago campus along the Midway Plaisance was determined to be a suitable location, with a former church, rectory, and pastor’s residence serving as the school’s home. Between 1928 and 1944, while housing and educating approximately 25 students at a time, the school’s activities focused predominantly on researching possible factors that contributed to the emotional, behavioral, social, and educational needs of children and adolescents. During these years, there was extensive study and focus regarding the theoretical characterization and treatment of children.
The O-School eventually become fully integrated into the Department of Education at the University of Chicago, thus when Rush Medical College and the University of Chicago ended their partnership in 1941, the O-School remained with the University of Chicago.
In 1944, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim began his lengthy association with the school. With a degree in aesthetics and art Vienna and some psychological training, Bettelheim shifted the school’s primary concern from empirical research to therapeutic care. At a time when most residential programs modeled themselves after an adult psychiatric ward at best or a detention center at worst, the comfortable, safe, nurturing, and inviting physical and interpersonal setting that he and his team fostered was novel. Advancing the concept of milieu therapy, the O-School created a highly individualized and clinically sensitive setting that allowed students to grow stronger and succeed.
One of the most significant and enduring contributions to emerge from the school at this time centered on the implementation of milieu therapy. With the idea that the physical surrounding affects how one feels about oneself, and subsequently how one behaves, the school’s contents and design were intended to allow students to feel valued and deeply recognized as worthy. The idea of using the environment to affect positive psychic change did not begin with Bettelheim, but this concept influenced the growth and development of treatment and programming at the school under his leadership. At this time, the central research question Bettelheim posed was: If people could be driven to dangerous or aberrant behavior based on inhumane circumstances (as Bettelheim had witnessed during his interment in a Nazi concentration camp), what changes can come about if an environment is highly sensitive, thoughtful, and relationship centric? Can that, conversely, bring about positive development and change?
With this in mind, the O-School embraced milieu therapy as a curative approach. In time, the O-School became widely known as a school where much careful attention was paid to every aspect of life. The highly trained and dedicated school staff carefully considered how to arrange every detail for the children, from environment to activity, in order to facilitate healthy psychological development. The intensity of study continued through the decades and attracted many researchers and practitioners to the O-School. Anna Freud visited the school and participated in furthering the work and Jacquelyn Seevak Sanders and Bert Cohler, both assumed subsequent leadership of the school.
In 2014, the O-School moved into a meticulously designed new location three blocks away from the original site. This move marked the beginning of an independent school corporation as the school no longer operated under the University of Chicago. Instead, the O-School today maintains partnerships with a variety of schools and institutions of treatment and higher learning, including the University of Chicago, Rush University Medical Center, Adler School of Professional Psychology, Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, and others.
Today, the O-School works to preserve the integrity of a solid therapeutic milieu built on relationships while integrating all facets of modern-day best practice. The O-School currently comprises a combination of residential and day students, but has retained a commitment to remaining just the right size to ensure that every member of the O-School community is known and the family-like aspect, central to fostering deep social connections, is preserved.
The academic expectations for the children who attend the O-School today are met with an appropriately ambitious curriculum and collection of co-curricular opportunities that rely on a combination of clinically sensitive instruction and community-based learning. Building on a foundation of learning, the O-School continues to partner with schools and universities to provide internships for clinical and educational professionals working to hone their expertise in the field. Inquiry is fostered, not just for the students but for staff members as well. With a research department and continued investment in growth as professionals, the O-School has married the theoretical constructs of the past with the imperatives of today. Today, parents and families are integral in every child’s therapeutic journey and the O-School fully embraces collaboration and involvement in every way.
For those interested in learning more about the origins of the O-School, several fascinating books have been written about the school and its evolution, including:
Truants from Life, by Bruno Bettelheim
The Empty Fortress, by Bruno Bettelheim
A Greenhouse for the Mind, by Jacquelyn Seevak Sanders
Author Dr. Diana Kon serves as Co-Executive Director of the O-School. To learn more about the O-School’s residential and day programs, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s or BWC’s services, please visit our contact page here or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.
Always finding ways to contribute and expand the continuum of care, the O-School’s first young adult center, The Brooke Whitted Center, opened in 2016.