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Schools, Programs, & Visit Reports - Apr, 1992 Issue 

Aspen Achievement Academy
(800) 283-8334
Mark A. Hobbins, Executive Dir. Of Admissions
Lon's Visit: 3-26-92

"Working here is a dream come true" was the most common comment by the staff I met. This enthusiasm is common to Special Purpose Schools and Programs, and very understandable for several reasons. First: Paperwork, red tape, and regulations are kept to a minimum. This is a refreshing change for those staff who came from hospitals and treatment centers where the need to meet regulations sometimes overshadows the needs of the residents. Second: Most of the staff are fairly new to Aspen, reflecting a tripling of the numbers of students since a year ago. The sense of creating a new program is always exhilarating. Third: They can clearly see they are making a difference. The few students per staff ratio, the intense nature of the wilderness experience, and doing things with the students (instead of TO the students) makes for observable change and tremendous job satisfaction. The staff feel they are living and working their ideals. Fourth: They are being paid for being outdoors. Most of the staff used much of their free time in the past jogging, camping and hiking. Now, they are being paid for spending more time in the outdoors, doing the kinds of activities they used to have to cram into their free time.

The 52 day program is divided into four (five if Impact is counted separately) phases. The student starts with the three day IMPACT, which is intensive physical activities, especially miles of hiking, to condition them and to bring out their issues. This is followed by the SURVIVAL phase, which is approximately two weeks long. The goal here is for the students to learn self-discipline and how to accept and deal with consequences. Fire-starting, low-impact camping, and other skills for high desert country existence are taught and used as tools to teach self-discipline. The next phase lasts approximately two weeks and is called FRONTIER. The focus is to learn how to work together as a group, and features the famous handcart, which carries all their supplies and camping equipment. The last approximately two week phase is called EXPEDITION. The goal is to practice leadership and to work on internalizing personal lessons. Several tools are used including small groups traveling cross country by map and compass. The wrap-up is when the family joins the students, both on the trail and in groups, and various group and individual family sessions to work on strengthening family dynamics. This part is being lengthened to reflect the importance of bringing it all together.

Groups on the trail usually consist of 8 students with a full time team for each group. Two or three staff are with the group 24 hours a day, under a rotation system so staff can get adequate days off to minimize burn-out. Each group has a therapist who works with that group throughout it's existence, alternating his or her time between hands-on work with the students in the field, and back at the office giving phone updates to parents.

Experiential academics are a part of the program with each student having assignments to work on to earn academic credit in English, Earth Science, Social Studies, and Physical Education. A full time certified academic director supervises the academic portion of the curriculum and supervises the field staff in their work in helping students complete the assignments.

If a student is disruptive to the group or needs more individualized focus, he or she is taken from the group to go on a QUEST. This is an individually developed expedition to accomplish something meaningful to the student. The student and two staff go on the QUEST and the student returns to the group if and when the student has successfully completed the QUEST and is ready to be a constructive member of the group.

Aspen Achievement Academy has gone through a lot of changes in the four years of its existence. This has caused some problems in the past, but I feel comfortable that it has gone through most of the settling in process. Before Barry Weiss, head of College Hospital took ownership of Aspen, there seemed to be some confusion whether it would follow a wilderness survival model or a clinical hospital without walls model. This seems now to be settled on a wilderness survival model with clinical support, and individualized admissions rather than a hospital's mass admissions approach. Its rapid growth in numbers of students has resulted in hiring many new staff. The resulting growing pains should diminish as the newer staff get experience and up to speed, which they seem to be doing very rapidly.

One explanation I heard of the program is that it is a bridge. A bridge to take the student from where he or she is at to where he or she is able to take advantage of long term resources, either in the home community or in a long term residential school. Another explanation is the program focuses on the control issue. The student learns he or she cannot control Mother Nature. Once this barrier is broken, the student is ready to learn how to positively deal with other aspects of life none of us can really control such as school, legally constituted authority, parents, and even friends.

Copyright 1992, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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