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HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Seven schools for troubled teens

For parents who can afford them, these schools can help steer kids toward success.

By Katherine Ellison

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From trauma to recovery

Say your teenager has skidded off the college-bound track, and you’re worried about everything from substance-abuse issues and inappropriate sexual activity to behavior problems and emotional struggles. If you’ve reached the stressed-out point of considering a boarding school designed to help turn your child’s life around, you may feel like you’re all alone.

You shouldn’t. The U.S. demand for these schools has grown rapidly in recent years and is now higher than ever. Cliff Brownstein, the executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), estimates that between college-prep facilities and shorter-term treatment centers and wilderness programs, there are at least 500 "therapeutic" facilities for youths nationwide, with as many as 20,000 students enrolled. (NATSAP’s membership includes 170 accredited programs.) Most specialize in treating youths whose behavior is sabotaging their school career and relationships.

The options range from highly structured residential treatment centers (for adolescents with serious psychological issues), to outdoor therapeutic programs designed for short-term interventions, to therapeutic boarding schools intended mostly for promising kids struggling with mild emotional and learning issues or traumatic events such as a divorce or move.

These private-run programs are costly, with the average boarding school tuition ranging from $5,000 to $9,000 per month, although financial aid is often available. The quality can vary dramatically as well, so it’s important to choose with care, despite how hard this can be when your family is in crisis.

“Educational consultants can help sort out the options, but they aren’t always necessary,” notes Newsday journalist Dave Marcus, the author of What It Takes to Pull Me Through, about four struggling teens at the Academy at Swift River in Massachusetts. “With some time on the Internet and phone, anyone can find families who have had experience with these places, and most families are glad to discuss the positives and negatives.” A good starting point is strugglingteens.com, a website run by an educational consulting firm, which offers an extensive list of specialized schools.

Based on his research, Marcus has assembled this short list of boarding schools he thinks do a particularly good job of helping kids get back on track:

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist, former foreign correspondent, writing consultant, author of four books, and mother of two sons. Her upcoming book “Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention,” a memoir about her son with AD/HD, is due out in October.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/12/2012:
"The comment from 5/30/2012 "I would love to see schools for the parents of these kids who are going awry. After all who raised them to become a mess? The influence and environment should be alleviated if they are ever to be helped permanently, " is insensitive and naive. These are good children with loving parents, and life happens and children cope effectively or not so effectively - the same as parents. Did you ever think that some of the children could have been traumatized in some way - death of a parent or sibling, victim of bullying, sexually abused. You are cold hearted to cast judgment on all these people. My mother always said, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Think about it. "
05/30/2012:
"I would love to see schools for the parents of these kids who are going awry. After all who raised them to become a mess? The influence and environment should be alleviated if they are ever to be helped permanently. "
04/6/2012:
"I saw the post about Monarch School from an obviously disgruntled ex-employee. I have to say that I'm surprised by the post since my child was their for the years of 2010 and 2011. We had a very positive experience with the school and the nurturing enviroment combined with excellent therpay saved our child and brought our family back together. Our child is now in college and doing very well. We still attend the regional workshops they provide and are always appreciate Patrick the founder being involved in all aspects of the school. We chose Monarch because the other schools we looked at the school leadership was very removed from the daily lives of the students. I highly recommend this school for those students that can be accepted. "
11/28/2011:
"In regards to the 02/21/11 post, I would like more information about the reference to "check You Tube for details. "
10/28/2011:
" I really like the concept of residential treatment centers for those teenagers that are struggling with various teenage problems. The programs recommended by the NATSAP are seems to be very extremely effective and profitable for the troubled teenagers. Wilderness programs for struggling teens are also a good alternative for treating the troubled teenagers. "
10/11/2011:
"I introduced a boarding school for teens to a friend of mine before and it turned out effective to the troubles that his teen was going on. I found it amusing that I became a bridge to a parent like me in taking care of a teen. And I really agree so much on what is written here. "
02/21/2011:
"Having worked at the Monarch School for a number of years (over 4) I would never recommend this institution for parents and their children. The majority of the upper administration (directors) are only interested in keeping actual 'numbers' in the school -- the bottom-line, money. The founder of the school consistently presents 'as if' he has the best interest of each student's individual needs in minds/parents, yet does not support the teachers and program staff appropriately to support these needs. To make matters worse Monarch consistently enrolls students they CAN NOT serve (see above + untrained faculty). Students with extreme social and other neurological defecits have and continued to be enrolled there. The faculty and program staff are NOT TRAINED in how to deal with these deficits, and therefore, students DO NOT receive the services they need and therefore, negative self beliefs are reinforced. This school should NOT BE recommended, it also largely comes from ! an old CEDU model (program and staff) which is confirmed abusive -- check You Tube for details. "
07/26/2010:
"FYI, there is no such thing as a for-profit charter school. Some charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, but the schools themselves receive public dollars to run the school. While I do agree that some of these management companies are shady (Mosaica and White Hat come to mind) not all are (Edison Learning and EdVisions for example). By the way, I work for one of the state charter school associations and am basing this on 5 years of observation and experience--not an over generalization of limited or bias. As with any schools, parents and students need to go visit and be sure the fit is right for them. I am hard pressed to believe anyone other than the family can truly find the a school that will work for them. Even if the consultant knows a lot about some schools, you should still go visit a few to get a feel for yourself. I personally would never pay someone to do this job for me. "
07/26/2010:
"There are also a number of public schools, both charter and district or even state run, whose mission it is to get back on track. Parents do not have to be able to afford 5-9K per month to get help for their troubled teen. I encourage parents and teens looking for schools to contact their charter school associations (most states with charters have one) or districts to ask what kind of alternative education options are available."
07/22/2010:
"Having worked in the area, I would consider it very hard to make the right choice as a parent based on the advice of an educational consultant because often the economy between the consultant and the school seems to be more a relationship between an employee and an employer than ordinary business deals between two independent firms. Second as a parent you need a plan for the time once your child have left the school. It is easy to create success in a isolated environment because all the temptations are removed. Once outside it is the question of the time-out the teenagers have gotten from real life was long enough so they are adults in their mind. People learn from the failures they make, not by not doing anything, which very often is the case in boarding school where they cannot get life experience."
07/20/2010:
"These are all excellent schools that are mentioned above, however each has its own unique culture and 'fit' depending on the student. Yes, it is possible to find these schools through the internet, but what you get with an educational consultant is 'hands on' information from professionals who have visited these schools, sent families to them, and can give you current information on staff and programs. We find that often the 'half life' for information on schools is about three years. Louise Slater, The Price Group, Educational Planning Services, Columbia, SC Professional Member, Independent Educational Consultants Association"
07/19/2010:
"These sound like wonderful schools for families with disposable income that is more than my family makes in a decade. Where is a family who earns less than $100,000 gross to look? We make too much for state or federal aid and not enough to pay out of our pockets. A much more practical answer would be appreciated for the majority of us. Thank you for your time."
07/19/2010:
"my 14 yr. old daughter was in foster care but i got a attorney and now she's back in my custody, she was in foster care for 5 yrs. but i was in her life, i know we would have issues from the past and present, going into the 9th, she was making F's but raised her grades to pass in to the 9th, we love each other and very glad we 're back in each others lives, at times we would pick her up walking the streets high and alone and would run away from the foster parent, we work on our communication, and tell each other ahead of time what we want to do or don't want to do."
07/19/2010:
"As an educational consultant whose practice is limited to working with students who are struggling, I would like to note that 30% of my time is spent visiting schools ( I have visited all on your list) and my purpose is to keep a current understanding of the culture, leadership and efficacy of the work of each program. My work with each client is focused on fully understanding their cognitive, academic and clinical profile so that I can suggest schools that can meet those needs. Your list is quite diverse, but Mr Marcus does not do families a service by listing schools without sorting through the criteria he uses to make these judgements. Parents trust that the suggestions I make are based on the individual needs of their child and while the schools you mention do excellent work, they also appreciate the work of a consultant because we make referrals to them based on an intimate knowledge of our clients and they type of student they best serve."
07/19/2010:
"For profit charter schools are only in it for the money. Very few are successful. "
07/19/2010:
"Ms. Ellison correctly notes the dramatic growth in the number, scope and specialization of therapeutic schools and programs in recent years. What is less clear is the often dramatic differences in mission, philosophy, therapy and success rates of the hundreds of programs that exist. It are these very differences that makes the role of the educational consultant so critical. Dave Marcus suggests parents start with a web search where they are likely to find materials well prepared by a school's marketing firm or extreme comments on both ends of a continuum. By contrast, professionals who belong to the Independent Educational Consultants Association have visited scores, (often more than a hundred) program sites, examining with a professional's critical eye all aspects of the program. They have extensive training in special needs issues and placements. They track their clients experience to learn not only what programs succeed, but how they fare with particular types of adolescents and particular difficulties. For example a program that succeeds with teens acting out violently due to attachment issues may fail miserably with teens exhibiting similar symptoms, but based on learning, substance abuse or other causes. These teens are already in tenuous situations and families are often on edge. This is why many of the most reputable programs ONLY accept adolescents who have worked closely with an educational consultant to identify the best possible fit among the hundreds of options. -Mark Sklarow, Executive Director, IECA"
07/19/2010:
"Unlike many of my fellow educational consultants I agree with both David Marcus and Katherine Ellison that parents can, with due care, select a school or program for their son or daughter without the assistance of an educational consultant, if they exercise due care. I agree that the www.strugglingteens.com website is a valuable resource. That is where my agreement ends. The content of this article demonstrates the gross incompetence of Katherine Ellison (and David Marcus, if she is quoting him accurately) on the subject this article addresses. I am very concerned about the kids who will be harmed by taking the advice given here. Three schools mentioned are schools about which I sound a very strong note of caution: Hyde (http://bit.ly/bYZASX), Carlbrook (http://bit.ly/danypI), and Academy at Swift River (http://bit.ly/90kYlI). In the case of Carlbrook, many of my educational consultants would disagree with me and agree with what was written. For a complete assessment of the school, multiple points of view must be considered. In the case of Academy at Swift River, I would have agreed with what David Marcus (wrote according to Ellison) at the time it was written, but it is out of date. Of the remaining schools, I agree that they tend to represent quality, but I see no logical reason to single them out. I also emphasize that careful school choice does not arise by comparing “good schools� with “bad schools� but by determining what is the “best fit� for your particular son or daughter from among the “good schools.� Just like buying or selling a house without a real estate agent is something that can be done, but to do that with proper due diligence without professional support is a very complex task. It is totally irresponsible for Ms. Ellison to represent the task as so simple. I am slowly developing a section of my website at http://bit.ly/d2nSUO to be a meaningful help to such parents, although frankly it is much too early in its development to be a stand-alone resource. This is not for self promotion, but what is already there demonstrates the complexity of the task."
07/19/2010:
"It seems this article is extremely East Coast focused, other than the school in Montana...there are other schools, such as Catalyst in Lafayette Colorado, which assists At-Risk Youths and kids who have been traumatized...I think this piece is limited and you could have gone beyond the East Coast."
07/19/2010:
"Didn't read the whole article so shouldn't comment, but what about schools on the West coast? or Southwest? "
07/19/2010:
"This is an informative article and immediately caugt my attention. I had troubles with our teen and been to several counselors, therapists, counseling centers, anger management etc. Nothing would work. She admitted she would just tell them what they wanted to hear. I had her evaluated and she was classified. After several trips to her school for her getting into trouble and doing everything possible that the school requested to get her back on track and still she was failing all her classes and TONS of attitude. After a lot of pushing through the school, I was able to get help through the school psychologist to place her elsewhere. She is a happier person and doing very well in her classes and now has a career path. It took a few years and of a lot of stress on our family but success can happen. I keep my fingers crossed every day that she keeps up the hard work."
07/19/2010:
"My daughter could not do well she got all E at Romulus High the kids were to mean and it seam like they ran the school not the adults, so I took her out and put her in Romulus Community High and she was on the honor roll ever seance and just graduated in June 2010"
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