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Posted October 6, 2003 

Pittsboro, North Carolina
(919) 837-2336 x200
Diana Boyer, Director of Admissions

[Visit Report: June 24, 2003, by Loi Eberle, M.A.,]

I appreciated caravanning to Auldern Academy, a Three Springs’ girls’ transitional boarding school, with the school’s director, Will Laughlin, and his wife, Beth, who does their referral relations. We met in the lovely town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so that I could follow them through the temporary road construction detours on the 45-minute drive through the rural countryside. We drove through areas of the lush vegetation and hardwood trees, along a highway that had large sections of beautiful flowers that looked like lilies, growing in the median between the two sides of the highway. Eventually we arrived at Auldern Academy’s administration building. This one-story brick building had formerly housed the now closed Three Springs’ Pittsboro Girls program, though that program had mostly taken place in the surrounding woods. Auldern has added a newly constructed dormitory and activities building, with all their buildings situated around a pond with a fountain in the center.

Will and Beth made sure I had the opportunity to speak with the students and the staff during my visit. I got the impression that the current mission of Auldern had become more focused than it had been when it opened in 2001. This was reinforced in my meeting with the new admissions director, Diana Boyer. I knew her from her previous work within the CEDU system and felt she has a thorough knowledge of the admission process, which I feel is a key element for ensuring Auldern’s success. Though there admittedly had been some initial confusion about the type of girl who was best suited for Auldern, when I visited, the staff seemed clear about the type of student appropriate for enrollment. Auldern also had appeared to solidify their emotional and academic support systems to ensure the success of the students they enroll.

That impression was further reinforced in my conversation with Sheri Callahan, Director of student Life. Auldern prefers to avoid calling themselves “transitional” as this has led to a misunderstanding of their mission. Instead, they describe themselves as a boarding school for academically capable, college-bound girls in grades 9 through 12 who want more structure and support than a traditional boarding school provides. This program provides girls a second chance, enrolling girls who are depressed or oppositional, even some who have had suicidiality in their past, as long as everyone feels they are ready for this level of freedom and academic rigor. If a prospective enrollee has been in a residential treatment center or wilderness program, the school feels it is important to have successfully completed that intervention.

When a girl first enrolls, she can receive individual counseling every four weeks with one of Audern’s master’s level licensed therapists. Often the counseling continues at this level of frequently after the initial four weeks, sometimes even more frequently, if requested, or it can be reduced, if appropriate. Auldern views this as a way “to wean the girls from the compulsory therapy, so that they view the counseling services as a resource that they access proactively as needed.” If they feel this is not taking place, they will coach in this direction, as a way of helping the girl prepare for college life and independence, where she will have to be proactive about her own needs.

At the time of my visit, the girls were involved in two therapy groups; one discussed process and boundaries, the other focused on skills building. They also were given the option of receiving additional on-going psychotherapy from a Ph.D. level licensed psychologist who comes on campus and interacts with the program.

The girls can call their parents once a week, though parent-initiated calls can be more frequent. They can also email their parents and earn the ability to use the phone freely during specific times thereafter unless the privilege is abused. The dorm staff sleep in the girls’ dorms at night and meet with the counselors who communicate with the parents on a regular basis. The academic advisors also email parents a personal note and progress report each week. The parents are permitted to visit campus with prior permission and students may go home on inter-term breaks and holidays, with family coaching available to make these visits a part of the curriculum.

I had the opportunity to see a student-run general meeting and was impressed with the girl’s level of energy and commradery, at least among the most outspoken ones. About 25 girls were attending school at the time of my visit, since there had been a recent graduation. They aim to maintain their student body at about 40 students during the school year. I learned later in a conversation with Will and Beth, that as a way of discouraging students from complaining, they encourage students to submit proposals when they have ideas for school improvements. They teach them proposal writing, petitioning, and memo formats for doing this.

My next conversation was with Russell Beecher, Ed.D, Dean of Academics, who comes from a private school background. His training and orientation is a reflection of the sentiment of the entire school: he considers academics to be central. He explained that Auldern has small classes of five to nine students and teachers who are experienced with this population. Their philosophy involves making healthy demands on their students while working with the academic challenges caused by rolling admissions and huge gaps in some of the students’ skills. There is no self-paced instruction in the classrooms, which is different than some other educational settings, but often they can piece together partial credits to satisfy a credit requirement. A modest amount of learning difficulties are accommodated, but for the most part they are handled simply as a result of small classes. He felt a special education background in a student is a red flag, though often it is a reason to question the test scores, which can be affected by lack of motivation and anxiety. Auldern students have two study halls during the day, in addition to receiving individual attention and small classes. Dr. Beecher explained that they use different teaching modalities, in which the students are actively involved in the educational process, so that it is the students who are the ones who are performing, not the teachers.

They also have a SAT test center, and provide space for Ann Sloan’s educational consulting group to help the students choose appropriate colleges, if a family wishes to make a private financial arrangement with this consulting group. These services are not offered by the school, though they suggest that parents involve an educational consultant in the college placement process.

It was a very “sultry” day, pushing 100 degrees outside, a somewhat rude awakening after being in air-conditioning the entire morning. I enjoyed looking at the pond while we walked outside between the air-conditioned units. Though thinking about water helped, I was relieved that it was only a brief walk between the cooler buildings. The girl’s dorms were roomy, with the actual condition of the living quarters based on the level of commitment the occupants had to keeping their space in order. There was a telephone where they could schedule time for phone calls, and a place to do their laundry. Beth and I talked with one of the dorm counselors about a recent proposal that would allow girls at a certain level of trust to take a cell phone with them when they went to the mall over the weekends. I’ve learned that the proposal has now evolved so that it involves responsible students checking-out cell phones only on campus at specific times. This is a suggested way to reduce scheduled phone hours since they have a limited number of phone lines, which are in great demand.

In one room, a girl had all her possessions, including clothes and linens, in a heap on the floor. I learned she had decided to leave at the end of the day. She was in stark contrast to other girls who had committed to the school, and were actually motivated academically. I sensed an underlying sadness in many at Auldern about not being able to live at home. Yet most of them acknowledged that being at Auldern might be the only way they could be accepted at a decent college and that it had not been working for them to be at home. I have since learned that the majority of girls I met were brand-new students with summer-only commitments. Auldern has decided to no longer allow summer-only enrollments—except in special academic circumstances with really solid girls—as this encourages “short-timer’s syndrome”.

After lunch I discussed my impressions of Auldern with Will and Beth. Will was very open about the fact that not all the girls wanted to stay, but usually the staff can get them to re-evaluate by bringing them through a process of exploring their real options. Usually at that point the students see that Auldern is their best option, and recognize that it’s plain old homesickness they’re experiencing. In the rare case a student still wishes to leave, they help her choose a way that is safe and relatively amicable. We also discussed the upcoming student council meeting later that day. On the agenda was making a decision about the girl whose belongings lay all over her floor. I had spoken with her at lunch, to learn she was contemplating a strategy that involved being sent to another program where she felt she could arrange to get kicked out. By then, she figured she’d be eighteen and could be on her own. I wonder if she considered how she could eat as well as I had that day in the school’s lunchroom?

I realized this is a very tough population with which to work; crafty enough to work the system, but also intelligent enough to realize that this system could truly work for them. Will and Beth were very open with me about the somewhat bumpy start that Auldern had experienced, and the commitment by Three Springs to maintain their transparency of communication so that this program could now truly flourish. My impressions as a result of my visit are that Auldern provides a combination of nurturing, emotional support, and free choice that would motivate girls who were ready for this environment to get back on track so they can pursue their academic goals while living a happier life. I think the girls currently at Auldern who have the opportunity to work with the highly qualified staff that I met on my visit, have a very strong likelihood of actually achieving these goals.

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