Opening a therapeutic gender-affirming LGBTQ+ high school in the foothills of the Berkshires in Western Mass. comes from a very personal place for founders Allison Druin, Ph.D., and Ben Bederson, Ph.D.
The life and business partners are parents to two children, an 18-year-old college freshman and a 24-year-old graduate student.
Druin said their family’s journey inspired the creation of the school located on 300-acres of an old dairy farm in Cummington that is slated to open in the fall of 2025.
“Three years ago, we were struggling to find a therapeutic school that could support our kid who was proudly identified as being a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. “He was hurting and yet still wanted to explore his identity. We looked for a school where students were on a similar journey and where teachers and clinicians were highly trained in working with LGBTQ+ youth. We couldn’t find anything that came close in our area, in the northeast or even in the country.”
According to the J.S. Bryant School website (jsbryantschool.org) educators, clinicians, farming professionals, and artists will nurture and grow students’ personal power and wellness in a gender-affirming environment.
The school’s mission will be to energize LGBTQ+ students’ curiosity and learning passion through creative exploration, farming entrepreneurship, and climate innovation, emphasizing learning excellence while nurturing students’ identity and wellness.
“We are excited to see that there are a few schools in the country that are making their focus LGBTQ+ youth but they do not integrate a therapeutic component to the school day, and they are not 12-month schools,” Druin said.
The school will first open as a therapeutic day school and in the years following, the plan is to add a therapeutic boarding program. Students will graduate ready for college or take on a job in the arts, farming, or climate innovation.
Druin said they expect to be able to serve 36 students to start and grow from there.
“It will be a day school with students from the local area,” she said. “As the school facilities grow, we expect to expand our school to serve 150 students yearly. Still a year and half away from launching, we already have had a great deal of interest from families and kids, not just in Massachusetts but in other states as well.”
Druin and Bederson, both lifelong educators, have been married for 28 years and for the last four years, have called Windsor home. Druin is currently the vice provost for research & strategic partnerships at Pratt Institute, a mostly remote job. By January, she will be working part-time for Pratt and spending the rest of her time as J.S. Bryant’s head of school with her husband as the chief operating officer.
In the spring Druin will transition to full-time in her role at the school while preparing for the launch. When asked why she feels an LQBTQ+ focused school is necessary and what students who identify as LGBTQ+ will gain from it, Druin had a lot to say.
“Today’s high school students are struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidality, and more,” Druin noted. “Youth that identify as LGBTQ+, particularly those that identify as trans and nonbinary, report much higher rates of struggle. The need has never been greater for the nation’s first therapeutic high school solely for LGBTQ+ teens suffering from anxiety and depression.”
She said the LGBTQ+ identity of students “will be woven into their curriculum and wellness experiences.”
“From personal identity to world views, students will be supported in learning how LGBTQ+ leaders have contributed to what they learn in math, science, the arts and more.”
Druin said that for most of their marriage, she and Bederson have also been partners in their work lives and have worked together to create new technologies for learning, including the International Children’s Digital Library.
“Over the decades of our academic careers we have enjoyed the challenge of solving hard real-world problems in partnership with kids and their families,” Druin stated. “We have traveled to Sweden, Mongolia, France, New Zealand, Germany, and the UK to work with students to learn more about what they need to learn. Starting a school together made a lot of sense given our years of experience as life and work partners.”
The J.S. Bryant School will be unique in that it will not only support students on a general education path while providing support for wellness, it will also emphasize two special areas – land-based learning, or farming, and the arts.
“Farming can be a context for learning about environmental science, climate change, chemistry, biology, entrepreneurship, and more,” Druin said. “Farming can enable students to connect with the outdoors with energy that is healthy for physical and mental well-being. And the arts can be a context for teens to express themselves in visual and creative ways that can be affirming and nurture mental well-being.”