Sam Ferrainolas Tricks Make Glen Mills Tick

Bill Howard
July 1, 1996

Standing tall and paunchy, shirt collar open, among the 20 youth seated in chemistry class, Sam Ferrainola is a commanding, but hardly scary, figure. Several students smile, guessing what he's about to say. He's obviously been through this routine many times to impress visitors.

"I want you to answer a question that has a thousand possible answers," he tells the class. “Tell this man from the media what is the name of the finest school in the nation?"

"GLEN MILLS!" the class responds in chorus.

Ferrainola grins in delight. "Hey. What do you know about that? Everyone got it right." Then he asks:

"Do you get abused?"

"NO!" says the chorus.

"Do you ever see a kid who is out of line get grabbed?"


"Is that child abuse?"


"Does he deserve it?"


"Most of the time we have a happy crew here. If some kid disrupts the class or hurts someone else, will you touch him?"


"Do we fight with each other?"


"Are we brothers?"


"Damn right we are! We're also the best school in the nation!" Ferrainola declares with pride and conviction ringing in his voice. Shortly before this stop on a tour of the 750-acre campus, built like a small college around a broad green quadrangle, Ferrainola had been asked about reports that Florida protective services workers had been denied access to Glen Mills. They had wanted to investigate complaints by some youths that they had been abused by staff who physically restrained them.

“That's the only way they can attack me — by making false charges," he replied. “You can get a delinquent to say anything—that his mother is purple. We've been investigated by the state of Pennsylvania and never had a case of child abuse substantiated." The chemistry class performance was Ferrainola's way of demonstrating student affirmation, if not the school’s iron discipline to ensure conformity.

Glen Mills' 900 teenagers get plenty to eat. They are fed four meals a day in a spotless dining hall and can buy snacks at the student union building. The reason: "A hungry kid is a mean kid," says Ferrainola, who has been known to lose his cool if he catches a cook denying a youth a second helping.

"I view my students as the sons of millionaires. I don't view them as bad, delinquent kids. They're just kids who've done bad things. I’ll take a drug dealer who's an entrepreneur but not an addict or an arsonist. And no rapists or psychos. This is not a mental hospital," he says. He also occasionally enrolls a murderer if the youth killed in self-defense or to protect a member of his family.

Critics like Judge Frank Orlando of Fort Lauderdale say that in carefully selecting students Ferrainola is "creaming" the crop, taking only athletes and the less violent delinquents. St. Petersburg Times reporter David Barstow, however, said he examined the rap sheets of the 100 Florida youths at the institution and found they were all "bad asses with 40 to 50 arrests each for assault, robbery, car theft, drugs." He added, "It's true they don't select kids with sexual offenses, mental problems or arsonists. But they're not picking choir boys, either."

Transformation of one-time members of the L.A. Crips. Chicago Skinheads and Philly crack dealers from gun-toting gangsters to book-lugging students occurs on arrival. Ferrainola said his school capitalizes on the fact that "if a kid moves from one gang to another he starts acting like the new one. He walks like them. talks like them and does the things that give him status. The way you get status here Is by following our rules that prepare the kid for life. Change his behavior to pro-social and then develop life skills. Academics. Learning respect for other people's rights. That's what we're about,"

A key element of Ferrainola's unorthodox approach is to place an extraordinary amount of trust in his students. At Christmas and in the spring, he pays for tickets for most to travel — alone — to visit home. All return on schedule.

Classrooms are amply equipped with computers and the tools of modern education. Ferrainola said he holds his teachers responsible for students' academic performance. Students work according to individual plans that call for progressing two months at grade level for every month of study. Most complete GED courses and about 10 percent move on to college. The rest also complete one or more vocational training programs ranging from carpentry to automobile mechanics, from draftsmanship to optics, from publishing (in the school's monthly tabloid. Battling Bulletin) to radio and television communications. There are 14 programs in all, and available in such profusion, Ferrainola says, only because Glen Mills is large enough to support them.

A member of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the school's 14 varsity teams compete in the Delaware Valley League where they have won championships in basketball, football, track and other sports.

"When you do something wrong you expect to get punished," says an 18-year- old youth from San Diego, a former gang member and now a leader of the Bulls Club. "Being sent here it seems that in doing something wrong you're getting rewarded with an education. I never thought I'd be going to college, but I am, in the fall, going to Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco."

The teenager is talking to a visitor in the foyer of the campus library, a tall gray stone edifice that formerly was a chapel. Beside him are a student from Minnesota and another newly arrived from a boot camp in Florida. None of them wants to respond to questions about the crimes that brought them here. Instead they prefer to talk about Glen Mills and its academic and vocational programs, even about the cleanliness of the physical plant. "Hey. Do you see any graffiti?"

The youth from San Diego is the father of a boy. He guesses that "at least half of the students are fathers. And he plans to start raising his own son — after he gets out of college.

Discipline is pervasive. At the student union building, as at the entrances to other school facilities, a boy sitting on a stool checks every student who comes in and out, making sure that they wipe their feet.

Members of the Bulls Club, the student government charged with sustaining "positive peer culture," are everywhere. They circulate among the boys playing pool at the dozen or so tables, and among those sitting around booths talking and drinking sodas. Quietly they confront kids for the slightest departure from school "norms": a shirttail hanging out, speaking too loudly, not making eye contact, sprawling sloppily in a chair.

A newcomer may be confronted a hundred times a day by the Bulls and staff.

Glen Mills Schools dates back to 1826 when it began in Philadelphia as the House of Refuge for delinquent youth. The agency moved to Its present rural location about 1890 when the campus was completed. It became Glen Mills In 1908.

Well maintained for many years, the school was in a state of collapse when Ferrainola arrived in 1975. “Twenty-one years ago," he recalls, "there were 30 kids here and the buildings had been condemned. We were $750,000 in debt and the bankers wanted to stop my credit line. The water was putrid from cisterns. The electrical system no good. This school was ready to be closed."

Not long before his arrival there had been a fire in which one boy, reportedly handcuffed to a bed, had died. And another had been badly burned. Ferrainola said his first action as the new superintendent was to fire all seven social workers on the staff and to begin removing all locks, bars, fences and the rest of the security system.

Today, one of the school's primary concerns is the safety of the students. All of the rooms in the five-story red brick dormitories are checked at 10-minute intervals throughout the night. Ferrainola says, “The biggest abuse of kids is by other kids. I won't have any big boys raping the smaller ones like what happens in those custody/clinical places run by social workers. They hurt kids."

All forms of physical contact are forbidden among students except in athletics.

But students who start a fight or refuse to go to school may be "touched for attention" by staff members. This can be pretty heavy. One Florida youth recalls being slammed down on a pool table by a 6-foot-4 counselor because he had Ignored him on his first day. "I realized they wasn't playin' up here," he told a reporter. Order is maintained in the dorms. Says a youth from Minnesota who recalls the violence of the streets: "I really feel safe here. Wherever I am."

Ferrainola employs some 400 youth workers — all of them brawny young men recruited from college athletic departments. He recruits about 100 new hires a year. Who's a good recruit?

"I'm looking for a person who won't be intimidated by the kids. For a person who Is not sadistic. A team person— and with a little sense of humor. Someone who doesn't take himself too seriously and can laugh and have who are jocks and want to coach. I have more coaches than coaching positions," he says.

All staff members start at $20,000 a year and salary levels advance to $48,000 for top personnel. Ferrainola provides housing on the grounds for many staff members and their families— housing that he built and rents for the cost of the mortgage, typically $150-$200 a month for a three-bedroom dwelling that on the Philadelphia market would go for $1,000-$ 1,200 a month.

Instead of giving senior staff with college-age children higher salaries which would be subject to taxation, Ferrainola has nonprofit Glen Mills pay their tuition directly to the college.

Bob Sobolevitch, a former Pennsylvania state juvenile justice official who is now with Ira Schwartz's Center for the Study of Youth Policy and has known Ferrainola for 29 years, says his pay policies are one reason Glen Mills is able to retain a high caliber staff at lower out-of-pocket cost. Ferrainola also has arranged to provide his staff with lower cost on-campus dental and health care from the same providers serving students.

"Sam's a patrone, and probably the best money manager in the business," Sobolevitch says, noting that Ferrainola buys food and supplies in box car lots to get better bargains. Frugality has enabled him to finance rehabilitation of the school's 100-year-old buildings, as well as put up several new structures. Glen Mills takes in an estimated $33 million-plus a year.

"We're building a $3.5 million field house ourselves," Ferrainola says, pointing to the site being prepared for construction. "We have no endowment. No one gives us any money. I will not waste my time going to foundations."

Deborah Eng, a Minnesota state juvenile corrections official, is a fan of the way Glen Mills encourages students to enter competitions like the Geography Bowl, to apply to college and even a study abroad program. (The school has several youths from Germany, including a Turkish worker's son.)

“That's what I like — teaching them ‘you can be all you ever want to be.’ That stuff is great for kids who have never seen anything outside their ghetto," she says. "It opens their minds."


Center for the Study of Youth Policy

Contact: Frank Orlando

Nova Southeastern University

3305 College Ave.

Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33314


Center for the Study of Youth Policy

Contact: Ira Schwartz/

Bob Sobolevitch

School of Social Work

University of Pennsylvania

4200 Pine St., 2nd Floor

Philadelphia, PA 19104-4090


FAX 215/573-2791

Glen Mills Schools

Contact: C. D. "Sam" Ferrainola, Superintendent

Glen Mills Rd.

Concordville, PA 19331


Griff Mills, Inc.

Contact: David M. Deming, President

4808 Woodmere

Tampa, FL 33609


Howard, Bill. "Sam Ferrainolas Tricks Make Glen Mills Tick."Youth Today, July/August 1996, p. 14-15.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.