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Posted: Jul 23, 2007 21:36


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Siler City, North Carolina
Jane Samuel, Head of School

Visit by Lon Woodbury, May 14, 2007

Auldern Academy is a college preparatory boarding school for young women grades 9 to 12, with a maximum of 45 students. The students are girls who have exhibited fairly mild behavioral or attitude problems. The first glance upon driving up to the property is of a well kept, up-scale boarding school. Set on 82 acres in central North Carolina near Raleigh, the center of the campus is a large pond, surrounded by the school dorms, administration and class room buildings. The pond is sometimes used for fishing, but the main use is as a natural spot for students to use the park benches scattered around it for quiet reflection or discussions with friends and/or staff. In addition, along the lines of multiple uses, the banks of the pond were planned as the site for the upcoming graduation. It was obvious this would be a very fitting scene for the completion of the 12 graduating girls' time at the school.

All the rooms in all the buildings are clean and well furnished. Some of the offices had student work displayed on their walls, and the talent of some of the students was very impressive. The students' rooms were also clean, comfortable and picked up. As in most places, just by observing how cozy their personal space was, it was fairly easy to pick out the space of those girls who were new and just beginning to settle in, from those who had been there some time and had grown comfortable there.

The dining room during lunch looked pretty typical of any group of students, with the buzz of chatting and visiting giving a pleasant sense of comfort on the part of the girls. The girls at my table were pleasant, open and willing to talk about their experience at the school. Of course, part of the buzz was from the excitement over the impending graduation ceremony.

One of the girls scheduled to graduate explained to me how hard it had been to adjust to the changes in policy she had seen while at the school. She said that at first she was against the changes but now knew that they had made things better.

The changes she referred to had been initiated by Headmistress Jane Samuel when she took over the reins of Auldern the summer of 2006, what Samuel explained was a tightening of the structure. Several privileges had been removed after the staff determined they were counterproductive, which of course the students resisted at the time. For one example, the previous year the girls could have cell phones which, as you can imagine, opened up opportunities for distracting the girls, and also various manipulations you normally have in mainstream schools. Losing the cell phones was at first resisted, but after a time the girls began to realize that without that electronic distraction school was more fun with much fewer petty upsets.

I think an understanding of these changes is necessary for an understanding that Auldern is a different school than it once previously was. In my interview with Samuel, she explained that much of what she had done was to tighten up the structure. In addition to no longer having unlimited cell phone and laptop access, a number of other rules or agreements were instituted to reduce upsets and distractions, and make the students' lives more predictable. The payoff was a campus that was safer for the girls to more effectively work on their personal issues and their academics. The girls graduating would be almost all of those who had seen the policies change, leaving primarily girls who had enrolled under the new policies. In my view the changes were fairly radical and I was impressed that Samuel and the staff had pulled off this kind of tightening of structure with only minor upsets.

Another change was a tightening of the admissions process. In looking at past records, Samuel had found that some students had been enrolled who were marginal at best as to whether they were really appropriate for Auldern. Those who would have been more appropriate to a more structured therapeutic boarding school had taken an inordinate amount of staff time with only modest results. By better screening of those who would have their needs better met by a school or program with a much tighter structure, many problems were avoided this past year, and again with the result of a better quality program for those appropriate for Auldern.

One result was that as the campus settled down, more attention could be paid to improving academics. Auldern has compartmentalized classes so that new students will never be more than two weeks behind the others in the classes they are first assigned. Thus the rigidity of the typical semester or quarter arrangement is avoided to the benefit of the students. Reading requirements have also increased. For example, the requirement for Environmental Science is to read, discuss and report on 11 assigned books. The staff is actively studying the latest in brain research, developing classroom approaches that take advantage of the expanding knowledge of the differences between adolescent-adult and male-female brains. In addition, there are plans to start AP classes next year. The academic schedule is made to look and feel to the girls as close as possible to what you would see in a mainstream school, to ease the transition for those girls who complete the program and return to complete their high school education in a regular boarding school or back home.

Another initiative this last year has been to pull the various departments together into a more integrated cooperative whole. In the past there had been the all too common tendency for each department to work in isolation, so that the teachers really didn't know what the counselors were doing, and there was less than optimum communication from both with the student life staff. When Samuel took over, she focused on enhancing a communication system that included all departments. Some of the staff mentioned that they now felt more like a team.

The initial commitment upon enrollment is one year, though of course some girls stay longer. Each girl goes through up to four phases, each phrase having fewer restrictions and increased privileges, including increased involvement with the surrounding community. Use of medication occurs only when it is obviously necessary. Staff informed me that almost all the students come to the school on medication, but after review of their history and behavior, typically only a third of the students need to stay on medication.

In addition to emphasizing a strong academic program, a major emphasis of the school is to help the girls develop the life skills necessary for a constructive future. They rely heavily on natural and logical consequences and the ability to earn increased privileges and responsibilities. For example, they require each girl to be responsible for chores twice a day, largely as a self-esteem builder. When a girl enrolls, she develops a personal growth plan with help from the staff, which includes at least three specific goals to begin with. As time goes on, this plan is revisited by each girl and changes or expands depending on what makes sense.

The therapy emphasizes individual groups, specialty workshops and family sessions. Parents are encouraged to visit every six or seven weeks and the sessions emphasize experiential activities. Between visits, Auldern utilizes family sessions over the phone. In addition, there are two parent workshops every year. Outdoor activities are emphasized throughout the year with each student introduced to a variety of activities. During the school year, the students participate in a number of day trips, which become overnighters during the summer.

The changes instituted last year seem to be solidly established, and the result is an impressive looking school for girls needing help growing up.

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