Jennifer DeWitt

 The chatter and energy of pint-sized students that once filled the halls of Davenport's Johnson Elementary School has been replaced with the tranquillity of an adult student body working to master the techniques of massage therapy.

Shuttered about 18 months ago amid budgetary concerns in the Davenport School District, the former elementary at Wilkes Avenue and West Locust

Street has found a new life as the Institute of Therapeutic Massage & Wellness.

"We're a school using a school, which is a great asset," said Dr. Dan

Howes, a chiropractor who owns and operates the institute with his wife, Bonita Howes. "This couldn't have been a better location for us."

The institute certifies students in massage therapy, reflexology and spa therapy. After 61/2 years in operation, the school was having growing pains at its previous Davenport facility on West 35th Street.

The need for expansion was being driven, in part, by the fact that massage therapy is beginning to find a place in other career fields.

"Massage therapy is just becoming a more widely accepted profession," said Dan Howes, who is the institute's administration director. "Physical therapists are using it."

In fact, his wife brings a background of five years as a physical therapist and four years as a personal trainer to the mix. She also is the institute's admissions director.

Also boosting enrollment, Dan Howes said, is an increase in students — many of whom also are attending other colleges — pursuing massage therapy as a temporary career. The institute's flexible class schedule allows those students to work around their other commitments.

"As a profession, you can earn $40 to $50 an hour and as a college student that's a lot better career to have than busing tables," he said, adding

that it is a career also being pursued by stay-at-home moms, early retirees and as a second profession for others.

Whether they use it as a part-time or full-time career, it's a skill "that's always going to be there for them," he said. Many of its students received four-year degrees in areas such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, athletic training, chiropractic, nursing, psychology and acupuncture.

Besides attracting a different type of students, massage therapy also is reaching a new breed of customers. Traditionally, massages were something the wealthy did as a way of pampering themselves, but now people are seeking them for health and wellness reasons. The student massage clinic is open to the public at a reduced rate.

In addition, massage is growing in popularity among professional athletes. In fact, the institute works regularly with members of the Quad-City SteamWheelers and the Quad-City Mallards.

"Typically, a massage therapy student will use many types of massage," Dan Howes said. "They are not able to diagnose, but they can analyze a person and develop a therapeutic plan." The plan might involve relaxation techniques, stretching as well as therapeutic massage.

Unlike others in the health field, Dan Howes said "massage therapists have the ability to spend about an hour at a time with their patients and get to know the clients a lot better. A lot of times, both the therapist and the patients don't like to give that relationship up."

That helps the students by giving them a semi-established client base when they leave the school. For those grads who come from outside the Quad-Cities — about half of a class of 20 are driving as far as two hours to attend the institute — the school allows them to use its facilities to maintain their local clients.

To date, the institute has certified more than 400 massage therapists and boasts a pass rate of 92 percent, said Bonita Howes.

Dan and Bonita Howes are part of a 25-member staff they have recruited to teach a broad curriculum that makes up the 650-hour massage therapy program, 100-hour reflexology certification program or 50-hour spa therapy technician program.

"We're not just a massage school; we teach alternative health therapies," Bonita Howes said.

Course work includes anatomy and physiology, palpatory integration, kinesiology, pathology, massage practical and theory, body mechanics, stretching and joint mobilization, athletic injuries, reflexology, aromatherapy, shiatsu, spa therapy and hydrotherapy, seated chair massage, herbology, therapeutic communication skills, marketing and business practices, stress management, polarity therapy, reiki, myofasical release and more.

On average, 60 students are enrolled at a time in the program, which can take six to 11 months to complete depending on the schedule. Classes are offered during the day and night. In order to graduate, a student must do 50 clinical massages.

The students range in age from 18 to 62 and graduates have come from 35 states and seven countries.

Bonita Howes said the school is attracting many students out of Chicago because of its competitive price. Students also are coming from Des Moines and Burlington, Iowa, and there are three international students from Spain, Brazil and Canada.

The school also is winning over the neighbors, many of whom fought vehemently to save their neighborhood school. "In fact, a lot of neighbors have been very supportive," Dan Howes said, adding that they even watch over the property when school is not open. "Quite a few of the neighbors have been clients of ours for years."

The couple has returned the favor by making the building accessible to the community, renting out the gym for parties, dances and seminars. Also increased is the number of classes and services they offer to the public, including Tai Chi, yoga, a strength training room, personal trainer, kick boxing, aerobics, skin care, nutrition and stress management classes.

Jennifer DeWitt can be contacted at (563) 383-2318 or