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Schools & Program Visits - Feb, 2000 Issue #66 

Conroe, Texas
Pat Johnson, Admissions
(800-260-9178 or srk@lcc.net)

Lon’s Visit on Jan. 12, 2000

At 3 years old, Excel Academy is a fresh newcomer in the field of schools for teens with problems. Some time back, the founders decided it was going to be increasingly difficult to survive, let alone provide quality services, within the treatment center/insurance system as it was currently developing. They reworked their center into a program that made sense to them based primarily on a school model, which they felt was better suited to meet the total needs of its students, rather than having to conform to the demands of a mental health system that primarily thinks in terms of disorders. 

The “home-grown” way in which the Academy developed makes it difficult to categorize. The program seems to be very eclectic, comprised of those program elements judged to work with struggling teens, based on the experience of its Director, Sally Keith. As a result, some recent generalizations floating around about Excel are somewhat misleading. Excel does not see themselves as a recovery model, do not use any kind of addiction model, and don’t consider themselves any more comparable to the Family Foundation School in New York then to any other school that works with this difficult population. 

Having said what they are not, the only way to understand the school is by a look at how the various components fit together. 

Strong academics are a priority; students attend classes in the morning, until about 2:30 in the afternoon with a break for lunch. The only thing that might interfere with that schedule would be when an individual student’s attitude or behavior makes constructive participation impossible. In that case, an intervention designed for that individual student might be developed. Classes are small, fewer than 12 students, and academic credits are awarded by fairly traditional methods based on time in class and content. This makes accelerated academics difficult, but due to the wide range of proficiency among the students, the teachers are rapidly finding ways to individualize instruction. Since one year behind is the average academic status when a student arrives, the school’s goal is to get them “caught up” with their peers. The quality of reports on display that were written by some of the older students ranging at least 30 pages long, convinced me good quality instruction was taking place. In the classes I visited, the students were attentive and participating. Academics are provided under the umbrella of the Houston Learning Academy, so all credits are fully transferable. 

The setting is rural. The academy is on twenty-five acres outside Conroe, Texas, which is on the outskirts of Houston. The buildings are well maintained, the grass trimmed, and there are bass in the pond. The physical environment shows as peaceful with a sense of isolation, which is important to the healing process these students need. One important note - the bedrooms of the students were very well maintained, neat, and clean, which is done by the students. This is always a strong indicator of a staff that pays great attention to detail, a vital component to success in working with kids making poor decisions. 

which is Excel’s version of group. These can be the whole student body, or broken up into smaller groups, depending on the student needs at the time. It was a whole student body session the day I was there. Jamie started the session, but Director Sally took over half way. I was impressed at the work done in a large group by both, but from watching Sally in action, it was obvious she is the heart and soul of the school. She seemed to be on top of where each student was at the time, with a prod here, a complement there, and sharing a laugh with another. From the student responses, and their focused attention, they were with her all the way, not at all easy to do with almost fifty easily distracted students in one room during the late afternoon. 

Not believing in punishment as such, they have a ranking of consequences that are well understood by all the students. The most common is for a student to wear a red t-shirt that looks like the standard Excel t-shirt except for the color. This is referred to as “shirted.” This occurs when a student is consistently into his/her negativity and the color helps other students recognize the restrictions that might go along with that status as well as a physical reminder to the student of where he/she is at emotionally. More serious attitudes, such as a run risk, earn a jump suit to wear. There are other consequences, from doing work around the campus and missing out on some of the fun activities, to thoroughly aerating the enclosed garden with a shovel for the student consistently pushing all the boundaries. A common activity all the students do early after their enrollment is a tour of the local jail, where they have the opportunity to see a possible consequence of getting caught by authorities if they leave Excel and go back to some of their more acting-out behaviors. 

Having fun is an aspect of the school the staff considers to be very important. The students had many activities over Christmas, which included each student receiving a furbee (a talking furry toy that can be individually programmed). I was told the sight of 40+ students training their furbees at the same time in the same room was delightful. I did notice during my visit that virtually every bed had its own furbee close by. Having settled down from the Christmas excitement, I am told a Super bowl party is planned, of course in a style appropriate for kids with problems. 

When asked what advice the students might have for educational consultants, one said, “Don’t let the kids manipulate their educational consultant.” And, “Psychiatric reactions don’t work here.” The feel of safety or serenity on campus was quite good, even though at the time a significant number of students were “shirted.” The students were attentive in class, and when I looked in the eyes of various students, it was easy to pick out those who had been in the program longer by having good eye contact and clear eyes. The newer ones generally had poor eye contact and an almost “glazed” over protective look in their eyes. 

I will be very comfortable referring to Excel Academy because they can handle a wide range of behavior problems, and also are capable of handling students with somewhat serious disorders, in a caring and detailed structure that can get to the root of issues. 

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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