Tucked away in the wooded campus of the Freedom Center is one of Loudoun’s best kept secrets: the PHILLIPS Building Futures Program.
PHILLIPS is a private day school for students with special needs. The program takes a maximum of 10 students ages 14 to 21 who don’t do well in the public school setting. Some of the students have learning disabilities and need a more individualized program, while others have social anxiety around large groups and do better in a quieter environment. Regardless of what brought them to PHILLIPS, the program looks to help students thrive while teaching them life skills in addition to academics.
“We have one student who just needed to get 12th grade English and learn job skills, so he’s here just for that. Other students come in in their freshman year, others will come in in their junior, senior years. Every student has a different story,” Program Manager Alan Peck said. “Everything we do is on an individual basis.”
Students have half a day of academic instruction, Peck said. The rest of the day is focused on vocational training in the building trades. PHILLIPS also works on behavioral and social skills and takes students on trips to the community to learn life skills.
“We try to incorporate real life into the program as much as possible,” Peck said.
The program is located at the Freedom Center, a nonprofit organization in Leesburg. The 100 acre facility was a school in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. The lodges are now rented out to youth groups, church groups and other organizations for retreats and camps. The PHILLIPS students maintain and repair the buildings. When the program needed more space, students even converted an old storage room into a classroom, Peck said.
“When we came here, all the buildings were in disrepair,” Peck said.
Some of the work students did involved jacking up buildings to repair and replace floor joints, drywalling, re-tiling bathrooms, plumbing, re-wiring electrical units, re-tiling roofs and landscaping. Students have also worked with Mobile Hope in Leesburg including building bookshelves for the nonprofit, Peck said.
Student Erik Villatoro, 16, said he likes learning new skills through the vocational programs. Some of his favorite projects include building the deck attached to the PHILLIPS academic building and installing the brick steps to the side of the building.
One of the buildings on the Freedom Center campus was rented by the Town of Leesburg and used as a cold-weather shelter for homeless people. The PHILLIPS students repaired the building and made it operational.
“The students felt really good about that, that they were able to help people less fortunate than themselves,” Peck said.
The PHILLIPS Program has two classrooms and an eating area. The program employs one classroom teacher, a teacher assistant and a counselor. Peck said he’s hoping to hire a vocational teacher as well. Peck said he wears many hats in the PHILLIPS Program. In addition to serving as program manager, he also works as an individual tutor, vocational teacher and fills any other role that needs filling.
Staff is always with the students so they get to know each student well enough to tailor the program to each student’s needs and build rapport with students. Peck has helped students become comfortable with and take advantage of individual counseling services. The campus also allows for minimal distractions and hiking trails allow students to go for walks when they need to clear their heads, Peck said.
“Just being on this property has a really calming effect. There’s no distractions, there’s no 7-11 across the street,” he said. “The nice thing about being out here is that if the students are having a hard time focusing, we can say ‘let’s go out for a walk,’ and we take them out and go for a walk around, get the heart beating, get the blood circulating and then go back and try again. It’s nice having that option.”
Villatoro said he always got distracted in the public school setting so the quieter environment coupled with the individualized help has been a great asset. Likewise, student Cristopher Butts, 19, said the smaller, more structured class sizes has helped him reach academic goals.
The program’s ultimate goal is to get students back into the public school system, Peck said. Students are referred to the program by LCPS. They then go through an interview process to make sure the PHILLIPS program is a good fit, Peck said.
“We don’t want a student to experience another failure and we want them to commit to the program,” he said. “They’re wanting to be successful. That’s the key to it or they wouldn’t come interview. They want to be successful and they want to be in school.”
The PHILLIPS program is based in Annandale and has several satellite sites like Loudoun’s around the state. The Loudoun program began in 2010, Peck said. LCPS requested PHILLIPS come to the county. At first, finding the right space was a challenge, but the Freedom Center ended up being a perfect match.
The center was already zoned educational because of a boarding school that had been on the lot in the 1960’s. PHILLIPS and the Freedom Center are both nonprofits and each help each other. The Freedom Center gives PHILLIPS a place to serve students and the program provides maintenance and landscaping services to the center, Peck said.
The vocational training gives kids an option they otherwise wouldn’t have, Peck said. It allows them to learn what they like or dislike about the building trade and also gives them experience in working with a team, taking orders and builds work ethic — all skills the students can use even if they don’t go into the building trade. In that way, the building skills are a means to an end, Peck said.
“It’s giving the kids a second and third chance that we don’t give up, we keep working with them. And the beauty of our program is that because we are small, we can say, ‘What do you need? We’ll adapt the program to you,’ versus ‘This is the program and you have to adapt to it.’ And that’s the key to the students coming here and feeling successful. We’re able to work with them at their level.
“If I can help just one, it’s worth it,” Peck said.