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Waterford Country School has new director

Waterford — The Waterford Country School’s new executive director knows the agency’s culture well.

Chris Lacey, born and raised in Norwich, was officially hired in February. He’s worked for the country school in different roles since 1998. In 2017, he became assistant executive director, helping to run the school alongside longtime Executive Director Bill Martin. 

Lacey is just the fifth executive director in the country school’s near-100-year history. He’s aware of this weighty responsibility and also recognizes Martin’s influence on the school. 

“Our motto at the agency was to do whatever it takes to help the kids. He embodied that,” Lacey said of Martin. “For me, it’s his long-term commitment, and the fact that he’s been a great mentor over the years. You can’t separate Bill from the agency. There’s a certain atmosphere here that he certainly helped build.” 

Martin left the school slightly earlier than expected to tend to family matters. He said he’s pleased with the Board of Directors' decision to hire Lacey.

“One of the things we have there is tremendous longevity, and Chris is a 20-plus-year staff member with amazing experience leading a number of different programs,” Martin said. “We were formed originally as a family organization by the Schacht family. We evolved over the years into a family organization of unrelated people. Our leadership team has an average of more than 50 years of working together.”

When he moved back to Connecticut after college and an early work experience, Lacey wasn’t aware of the country school, but he saw a place that fit the child welfare job description he wanted. He began at the country school’s shelter program in 1998. He later moved to its Norwich office, where he oversaw foster care and outpatient clinic programs until 2017.

Lacey knows every aspect of the country school intimately. A case in point is the animal side of the country school’s business.

 “The agency takes kids, or animals, that struggle elsewhere," Lacey said. “We bring them together. Our kids and our animals work together. We have more than a dozen dogs on campus right now for the kids. We bring in injured wildlife or neglected farm animals that don’t have a place to go. The kids from the school work on the farm, the kids who live there help take care of the animals a little bit. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

The country school’s 350-acre campus also differentiates it from child welfare programs in cities or more populated areas. 

“They don’t have the sort of the land that we have. I think that goes back to our roots. We originally started as an alternative school program in the 1920s where people from New York would get out of the city and get out into nature,” Lacey said.

The institution was modeled on a school for gifted and ill children founded by two teachers, the late Ettie and Henry Schacht, in their Brooklyn, N.Y., home in 1922. It later expanded to two buildings in Brooklyn and a summer program in Far Rockaway, N.Y. That school closed in 1951. In 1929, the Shachts bought more than 500 acres of farmland in Waterford and established a summer camp for children with disabilities and mental illnesses, now the Waterford Country School.

The Schachts continued to operate the Waterford school until their son, Herb, took over. He ran the school for more than 40 years.

Much has changed since the early days of the school. Lacey notes that the number of kids living on campus has “definitely shrunken” in recent years, from 60-100 kids at any given time when he started to 30-40 now.  A federal initiative will continue the move away from residential treatment programs in favor of foster care. 

“I was a foster parent for 10 years. Kids should be in a family if at all possible, but if not, that’s what we’re here for,” Lacey said. “The world is moving away from longer-term congregate care. There’s fewer kids living with us, and when they do live with us, they stay for a shorter time. That’s the way the business is going, so we’re adapting to that.” 

Martin also highlighted changing attitude toward residential treatment.

“Some places think group care, kids not living with families but living with treatment, what’s called therapeutic residential care, is a good idea, some think it’s a bad idea,” he said. “We think it’s a necessary part of the treatment continuum, and Connecticut’s trying to figure that out. It’s a worldwide debate. Cornell University believes if used properly it’s an essential part of continuum of care, and we believe that as well.”

 The country school’s relationship with Cornell University was touted by both Martin and Lacey. Martin led the school to partner with Cornell in evaluating and modifying the Children and Residential Experiences, or CARE, program model, which substantially reduced how often staff members need to restrain clients,  the need for prescription drugs to control behaviors, the number of runaways and campus property damage. The school, in turn, has invited visitors to see the CARE program in person, as well as documenting its progress by recording data and being part of scientific studies.

Waterford Country School was one of the first residential facilities in the country to introduce the CARE model, which was implemented in foster care, residential treatment and its school. Traditionally, residential facilities for people with emotional or behavioral problems had used behaviorist models based on rewards and consequences, but this program uses a more relational approach, understanding kids need support, not punishment, when they lash out. The idea was to look at what kids were good at, rather than focusing on their problems. Under the new model, kids are defined by their successes rather than their struggles.

When asked about his legacy at WCS, this is what Martin immediately points to.

 "We partnered with Cornell University back in 2009 and we became their first certified agency using their treatment models, then we became the first CARE academy,” he said. “We have piloted some research for them. We’ve had the opportunity to partner with the greatest minds in the business and be their working laboratory to demonstrate that work.”

 Lacey said he will be focusing on the school program at WCS, particularly providing practical, hands-on vocational opportunities going forward, and creating better space for classrooms. He took a moment to describe why he was drawn to working with kids.

"Working with adults is a whole different ballgame. With kids, you’re still growing, you’re still learning, you’re still malleable, there’s still a lot of hope there,” he said. “There’s opportunities for kids; they all need help with something. Each kid just needs more help. There’s nothing better than success with kids, seeing them grow, seeing them do better than when they came in. It’s very fulfilling work.”

 s.spinella@theday.com

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