Glen Mills Schools students D’Angelo Reed, Xavius Howell and Jeremiah Jefferson//All photos by Tessa Marie Images.
Nestled among 800 acres of rolling hills in Delaware County sits a beautiful complex of old brick buildings. Stately trees line
well-manicured sidewalks. Young men hold doors open, nod their heads at passersby, and greet them congenially.
The Glen Mills School has many of the earmarks of one of the Main Line’s private institutions. But this one is open to boys ages 12-18 who’ve run afoul of the law. It’s the oldest school of its kind in the United States, marking 190 years this fall.
In 1826, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons succeeded in removing juvenile offenders from overcrowded prisons with no mechanism for reform. Juveniles were welcomed into the newly built Philadelphia House of Refuge, where they found asylum from poverty and ignorance. Directors focused on reform instead of punishment, forging friendships rather than simply serving as wardens. Routines centered on education, training and recreation—not physical labor.
By the late 1800s, the directors of the House of Refuge decided that students would benefit from a rural setting. Agricultural labor was thought to facilitate social change. Glen Mills proved a perfect location. Using the cottage model for the campus layout, it closely replicated home and community life elsewhere. Success was immediate. “The event was nearly miraculous,” said then-superintendent F.H. Nibecker at the time. “In only a few days, the boys’ spirits changed. Bright countenances replaced sullen looks. Many from whom the least had been expected developed into manly, reliable boys.”
It wasn’t until 1911 that GMS took up its current name, emphasizing a commitment to education and reformation. “Schools” once referred to two separate schools on campus—one for boys and one for girls, the latter who were moved to the Darlington family’s Sleighton Farm School in 1908. Today, the plural name signifies an additional day program serving 50 youths.
Student D’Angelo Reed gets hands-on experience in a Glen Mills Schools workshop.
There are currently 520 students enrolled at GMS, where a typical stay lasts between nine months and a year. Students develop pride in their school and respond to positive peer pressure. Former GMS executive director Cosimo Ferrainola described the school’s structure as “a system of social control borrowed directly from street gangs,” meaning the students understand the power of peer pressure and the rewards of status. Students even adopt otherwise cliché mantras that personally resonate. Montgomery County’s DaQuan Dantzler likes: “You are the company that you keep.”
A private, nonprofit endeavor, GMS has about 100 contracts across states and even countries to bring their students top resources. Students work individually on computers in morning, afternoon and evening instructional sessions. During this time, they can earn a GED or a high school diploma, and many go to college after their terms end. GMS also provides training in 25 areas, including video production, optical services and barbering.
Beyond education, GMS focuses on building confidence. “We’re just as proud of a student who improves his reading level as one who is college-bound,” says executive director Randy Ireson.
Leadership opportunities are abundant, and each student is encouraged to engage in pro-social normative behavior by becoming a member of the Battling Bulls Club student government. Sports also help with this. Compulsory at GMS, athletics offer focus and self-discipline while building team loyalty—important qualities to carry through life. For many students, it’s the first time to don a jersey and be part of a team. As a member of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Delaware Valley Athletic Association, GMS competes in 15 varsity and junior varsity sports. Over the past 30 years, the school has won an impressive 88 league, 46 state and 18 national championships.
Since 2000, GMS students have received hands-on training at the Golf Course at Glen Mills adjacent to campus. Alum Sean Kearney is now assistant course superintendent at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y. He says he’s forever grateful for his experiences there. “My time spent at the school prepared me to become successful in life,” he says. “It gave me a second chance—an opportunity to forget what I had done and plan how I was going to make something out of myself.”