By Lynne Baranski
February 09, 1981 12:00 PM

Says one grateful father: ‘Michael has saved lives’

When he was a child growing up in Boston, Michael DeSisto’s favorite game was playing school with his sister. “But if I couldn’t be principal,” he recalls, “I wouldn’t play.” By the time he was 28, the stubborn young educator had realized his ambition: He was named director of Lake Grove, a Long Island prep school for kids with emotional problems. Then in 1978, after 11 years on the job, he was unceremoniously sacked. The school’s administrators suspected him of fostering loyalty to himself rather than to Lake Grove. In any case, most parents withdrew their children from the school and helped DeSisto found one of his own. Most of the faculty went with him too. The result is the DeSisto School in Stockbridge, Mass. (it now has a second campus near Orlando, Fla.), one of the most successful schools for troubled kids in the country.

DeSisto’s 267 students in Massachusetts and Florida have a history of problems ranging from drinking and drug use to schizophrenia, prostitution and attempted suicide. “But these kids are no different or more spectacular than the average high school kid,” he insists. “They just chose to show anger at the world in such a way that it scared people.” DeSisto’s response is not kid gloves but unbending discipline, and the rules are enforced by the students themselves. “Kids who come to DeSisto know that what they’re doing is wrong,” says alumnus Gary Zimberg, now a sophomore at the University of Colorado. “They want to change.” As a consequence, the school is relatively trouble-free. In lieu of expulsion, rule breakers are marched symbolically to the gates of the school and allowed to return if they promise to perform 250 hours of work for the DeSisto community. Remarkably, most of them do.

The mood on the 300-acre Stock-bridge campus is warm and relentlessly open. “Hey, Michael,” a girl yells to her headmaster, “I love you. And I feel good today.” Students and teachers alike are in group therapy almost nonstop, and classes can turn instantly from a subject like math to a discussion of a student’s feelings. “Everything I put my kids through, I put myself through,” says DeSisto, who credits Gestalt therapy as well as a protein-sparing diet for cutting his weight from 325 to 160 pounds last year (he’s 5’9″). Standards are rigorous, but the students accept them. Some have run away from home during vacation to come back to school; 90 percent go on to college. Producer Joe Papp, a DeSisto board member and parent of a graduate, says, “I’ve seen kids come in destroyed and within a month you see the change. You begin to see the kids’ hearts through their faces.” Says another parent: “Michael is a therapeutic genius. He has saved lives.”

DeSisto’s claim for his school is less extravagant. “People can’t be changed,” he says. “But you can offer security and structure and allow them to be what they are. Other schools take a square kid and cut off pieces to fit him into round holes. We do not,” he continues. “There’s not one rule that the kids don’t want. Because of that, we’re free to be guidance people without being prosecutors.”

A 41-year-old bachelor whose only relaxation is white-water canoeing and occasional days off to write poetry, DeSisto equates his work with his life. The son of a contractor, he remembers himself as “an average student who hated school.” After majoring in history at Stonehill College, he earned his master’s in psychology at the University of Massachusetts. Then, as a Latin and English teacher in the Amherst, Mass. public schools and later at a New York military academy, he found he was “more interested in who didn’t learn than who did. The fourth conjugation of a verb wasn’t important. I wanted to know what was blocking the kids from learning.” Though some parents were suspicious of him at first, fearing he might be setting himself up as a sort of guru, he dispelled their apprehension by demanding intensive family involvement in his school. Parents are urged to enter therapy themselves, and requested to spend parent-child weekends on campus. “We don’t enroll a child,” he declares. “We enroll parents as well, and we try to give families back to each other.”