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Schools & Program Visits - Nov, 2000 Issue #75 

The Northstar Center
Bend, Oregon
Chip Huge, Admissions Director

Visit Report on Oct. 11, 2000
by Loi Eberle
Woodbury Reports, Inc.

This program appears to be an answer for the parent who wants to help their child who is eighteen years or older. It is an appropriate choice for the young adults who have decided they are willing to pursue their education, but who recognize a therapeutic community and academic support are still needed to help maintain their direction.

Typically the students in this program are bright, have a sense of entitlement, and often have learning differences. Though they are 18 to 24 years of age, often their emotional maturity is about 14 or 15 years of age, according to admissions counselor, Julie Gordon. They are impulsive and suffer from depression and low self-esteem. Many have had alcohol and drug problems and Northstar serves as a transitional program after they have gone through a treatment program. Many Northstar students are in need of emotional work, primarily in figuring out who they are, though they also often are dealing with issues such as adoption and sexual abuse. Northstar has been able to work with young adults who have non-verbal learning differences, and those who are bi- polar, if they are stabilized on medication. They have found however, that the young adults who need acute therapy, and those with borderline characteristics aren't suitable for the Northstar program.

Because it is a voluntary program and the students are over eighteen years of age, the admissions process involves an extensive interview over two-day period to be assured that they are willing to honor their commitment to be in a one-year program. This of course is an important consideration for their parents as well, since they must pay the entire year's tuition up front, regardless of whether or not their child chooses to remain in the program. The community of students is a very important part of the program, and they also spend a great deal of time talking with the prospective enrollee.

Once a student enrolls he or she enters the first phase of this three-phase program. Each phase of the program has a set of goals for each student, called the IAP, the Individualized Achievement Plan. The goals in the IAP are basically assigned to the students by the staff in Phase I. In Phase II they are determined half by the therapist and half by themselves, while in Phase III their goals are determined completely by themselves.

In Phase I the students live communally at the Irving House, which accommodates twelve Phase I students. They usually remain in this phase for three to four months, though it may be for as brief a time period as six weeks. Once they have completed or are close to completing their Individual Achievement Plan (IAP) for this phase, the students participate in a wilderness experience. If the students don't accomplish their Phase I IAP in a reasonable amount of time they are placed on house restriction. They move into the second phase of the program once they have completed their wilderness expedition. In Phase II the students live four to an apartment in Northstar's apartment complex. In Phase III they live completely independently. They continue to participate in therapy and academic classes in all three phases.

The Phase I wilderness experience is run by Northstar staff, including a master's level therapist. This fourteen-day wilderness experience was compared to an "Outward Bound" type of program rather than a high impact intervention. The goal is to bond the peer group. Phase II students volunteer to help the Phase I students prepare for their wilderness experience.

I attended a weekly meeting during which students were asked to volunteer for a variety of activities, including assisting with preparation for the wilderness trek. They seemed excited to help. I suppose this would not seem so unusual, except that the visual images of the kids, some with blue hair and tongue studs, conveyed them as not the kind of kids one would expect to be interactive, much less helpful. But they were. In fact they showed a high degree of support for their fellow students, insight and willingness to modify their behavior. Their performance may have been due to the presence of a consultant, who they greeted with cheers, but I think it was genuine, tempered by the need to fulfill the goals of their IAP, and the consequences they face if they don't.

Students receive a fairly high level of therapy in this program according to admissions counselor Julie Gordon. She pointed out that the students are quite astute about various therapeutic techniques, most having been in therapy for many years. For this reason the program found group therapy to be more effective - as students have more difficulty escaping the insights and confrontation of their peers. In the first six months the therapeutic process is entirely group therapy, with sessions two times a week, in addition to the "morning dance." During the daily "dance" students check in each day to discuss how they are doing, which often becomes a therapy session as well.

This program provides a way for students to receive their high school diploma and community college credit. The high school diploma is obtained both through correspondence as well as an occasional class at the community college. There are also 18 mandatory credits that are taught for only the Northstar students at the community college. They use experiential teaching techniques, educating students in study skills, time management, and how to advocate for their learning differences. These 18 credits can then be transferred to other colleges.

Students also have access to an academic resource center, and are given career counseling. In order to complete their Individualized Achievement Plan, they must accomplish academic work as well as community volunteer work, and they must sign an agreement to remain clean and sober for the entire time they are at Northstar.

Many students have come to Northstar after having completed wilderness intervention programs to deal with a drug and/or alcohol problem. Julie said they have found, even when alcohol and drugs were not the primary issue, that it was effective to have students go through a wilderness program before enrolling in Northstar. Robbi O'Kelley, their new licensed clinical manager, teaches a "Bridges to Balance" class as part of the Northstar curriculum that deals with all forms of addiction. The day I was there the students were informed they needed to put their personal computers in storage or send them back home until Phase III, when they would actually need them. In the earlier phases computers were considered a form of distraction, social isolation, even addiction.

Although the program seemed very clear about addictions, I noticed several students taking smoking breaks in the courtyard. I commented about this apparent contradiction, and was told the staff were picking their battles, though they saw themselves moving in the direction of getting students to let go of this behavior as well. If the students break any of their agreements, the students must meet with the honors committee to be given consequences. This committee consists of six students and a staff member.

After the house meeting, which took place in the Irving House living room with all 39 students crowded on the floor and couches, many arm in arm, we were shown a power point presentation developed by one of Northstar's graduates. This entertaining presentation was about an aspect of the trip he and some of the other Northstar students and staff had taken to Italy last summer. He was one of several graduates who still remained in contact with the program. About 80% of Northstar's graduates remained in the Bend area, some attending college, some doing internships or working. Many enjoy the community and opportunities that are available in the Bend area. Northstar also has a second year program during which the students live independently but still participate in counseling and academic support as needed.

I felt the Northstar program can help guide students through the process of developing academic and life skills in order to ultimately be able to be successful when living independently. It provides enough of a sense of freedom that I suspect the students are willing to cooperate with the other "program" aspects, because they see the benefit of the emotional and academic support the program has provided. It also seemed that Northstar has created a climate that enables the students to receive guidance without feeling their individuality is being inhibited.

Copyright 2000, 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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