On Track for Graduation:

By Meghan Vivo

“I’ll just wait until the school year ends.”

Thousands of parents of troubled teens make this statement every year. As a parent, you know when your child has crossed the line from normal adolescent “acting out” to full-blown behavioral issues that require professional attention. And yet many parents are reluctant to take their child out of school during the school year. They worry about their teen leaving behind his friends and teachers, losing momentum in his coursework, and perhaps even dropping out of school permanently.

But if your teen is in a downward spiral at public school – getting into trouble, falling behind academically, or skipping classes – the problem will only get worse if you wait. Where can a parent turn to help their child sort through emotional issues without falling behind in school? For many families, the best intervention is sending their child to a therapeutic boarding school or wilderness camp as soon as problems arise, so he can get the treatment he needs while getting caught up, or even moving ahead, academically.

Boarding School Academics

Therapeutic boarding schools offer emotional and behavioral therapy as well as accelerated academics that help students catch up on credits and get back on track for graduation. Students in therapeutic boarding schools actively work toward receiving a high school diploma. If a student earns all required credits during the program, he will receive a diploma and graduate from the boarding school. If the student returns to public school, the boarding school will issue an official transcript so the child can continue his education at home.

Most boarding schools offer open enrollment, which allows students to enter the program at any time. When a new student enters the class, she works with other students who are familiar with the program and who act as role models to newer students. Depending on the student’s credit needs, teachers will either assign projects to get the child caught up with her classmates, or work individually with the student at her own pace.

Often, teens struggle in public school because they get lost in the shuffle of large class sizes. The small class sizes at boarding schools enable teachers to assist students with special needs, while assigning more challenging work to advanced students. It is common for therapeutic boarding school classrooms to have only 8-12 students per teacher, with half of the class working on one project while the other half works on a different project. In small classes, teachers have the flexibility they need to help teens get back on track.

Transferring to Boarding School

Therapeutic boarding schools assist parents with much of the legwork for their students. Academic counselors help coordinate with the child’s public school to get partial credit and exit grades for the student’s recent classes. Boarding school academic counselors also coordinate with any future school the student may attend. For example, if a student returns to public school, boarding school staff will talk to the public school counselor about course descriptions, grade scales, and how credits were calculated to ensure that all coursework transfers.

“When a child enrolls in boarding school, the staff begins by conducting an extensive review of their transcripts and creating an academic plan for the next semester and beyond,” says Lisa Fairman, Director of Special Education at Mount Bachelor Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for teens ages 14-17 in Oregon. “Many students arrive behind in credits by approximately six months to a year. By accepting and awarding credits in half or quarter units, rather than solely whole units, we give each student credit for all of the work they’ve done. With an extended school day and year-round school, it is possible for motivated students to catch up with other kids their age. By the time most students leave Mount Bachelor, they have earned enough credits to be on track for graduation, with the majority of graduating seniors going on to attend college.”

Credits earned at accredited boarding schools will be accepted at any high school in the U.S. and internationally. If a student plans to return to public school in another state, some boarding schools will gear the child’s curriculum to meet the home-state requirements. Many states require that students take particular courses at a set time, so boarding schools try to accommodate those special requirements to make the transition smoother. For students who are interested in attending college, most therapeutic boarding schools offer workshops on SAT preparation and college essay-writing, as well career counseling and vocational planning services.

No other type of school goes to such great lengths to meet a child’s needs. “At Mount Bachelor, there is no set course schedule,” Fairman explains. “Each semester, we offer courses that are tailored to the credit needs of our current student body. For example, if 15 students need physics for the fall semester, we offer two sections of that course. That way, students will never fall behind just because the course they need isn’t offered during a certain semester. That’s the real benefit of a therapeutic boarding school – we can be creative, flexible, and completely responsive to the individual needs of each student.”

Experiential Learning

Therapeutic boarding schools focus on basic high school curriculum, such as English, mathematics, science, social studies, foreign language, and the arts. In addition to teaching students the basics needed for graduation, these schools offer extracurricular activities and experiential learning trips that promote further academic and personal growth and provide additional opportunities to earn academic credit.

For example, Mount Bachelor Academy offers extra academic credits through experiential adventure classrooms during the summer and throughout the semester. “We offer a course called Shakespeare Classroom that takes students to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to watch plays, attend workshops taught by festival instructors, and take a behind-the-scenes tour,” says Fairman. “Another student favorite is Coastal Classroom where students travel to Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center to conduct experiments in biology labs, visit the tide pools, and learn about oceanography at the aquarium. Other offerings include River Classroom where students become certified in white-water rafting, Oregon History Roadtrip, and CSI Classroom which teaches students how to investigate a crime scene.”

Boarding school instructors use creative approaches in their classes, taking advantage of local cultural, historic, and geologic sites. “Because the courses and adventure classrooms change with each semester, teachers are passionate about their work,” Fairman explains. “And their passion is contagious. Students realize learning can be fun and have real-life applications. For some students, the experience is life-changing. They return home with a zest for learning and enthusiasm for life.”

Earning Academic Credit at a Wilderness Program

Therapeutic wilderness programs are another outlet for struggling teens who need to catch up on academic credit. Wilderness camps generally last a few weeks to a few months, and most offer summer sessions so that children can complete the school year at home. These programs place teens with behavioral or emotional challenges in a new setting, far away from negative distractions like video games, TV, and cell phones, with round-the-clock supervision.

Some wilderness programs are accredited. This means a governing body has authorized the program to grant academic credit in health, physical education, home economics, art, writing, English, science, and other subjects. Educational courses are woven into wilderness programs through experiential learning and organized group instruction. Students can earn academic credit if they meet a minimum level of proficiency, which is assessed through student journal writing, one-on-one sessions, group sessions, and student performance. Credits earned through an accredited wilderness program are transferable to the student’s home school.

Not all students learn in the same ways. Some thrive on experience and observation rather than books and lectures. In the outdoor classroom, students can learn geology by studying rock formations, weather systems by tracking changes in wind and air pressure, astronomy by gazing at the moon and stars, and biology through study of local plants and animals. This hands-on experiential approach to learning helps students relate knowledge from books and teachers to real-life experiences. One positive educational experience can be all it takes to reawaken a teen’s interest in school.

Studies suggest that teens who are depressed, defiant, or under emotional distress simply cannot perform well at school without help. Troubles in one area of adolescent life spill over and affect other areas. If a teen is struggling with friends or home life, there’s a good chance he cannot function properly in school. In order to address academic problems, parents usually have to intervene in emotional areas first.

If your teen is falling behind in public school or struggling with depression, substance abuse, defiance, or other behavioral issues, don’t put off getting help. Waiting a few weeks or months until your child finishes the school year can put him further into harm’s way. Given their expertise in dealing with troubled teens, wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools are highly successful with students that have been “unreachable” or unable to learn, or that have failed in more traditional school systems. By addressing behavioral and emotional issues as well as academic requirements, wilderness camps and therapeutic boarding schools help lay the groundwork for continued academic growth and success.