I visited Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge on a mid-October day, when the rural, north Georgia campus was shrouded in a misty - but thankfully, not too chilly - rain. Because I had arrived in the early afternoon, I was just in time for lunch, and so I was lucky enough to be able to join the students as they ate in the cafeteria. I was escorted to a table where about six girls, their two female counselors and one of their male teachers, were sitting. They were a pleasant group, and all of them seemed pretty comfortable in the setting, although two of the girls did the vast majority of the talking.
They came from a variety of states, mostly in the South and Southwest, and they all agreed that Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge had been helpful to them. They talked about how they were learning to take responsibility for their actions; they said that the group problem-solving and self-monitoring skills that are a part of the school's Positive Peer Culture model had been particularly helpful to them. Somewhat to my surprise, the girls were extremely positive about their classes and their teachers, saying that they loved to go to the school at Eckerd Academy. The problems that seemed to have brought them to the program were similar to those of other teenage girls with whom I've worked: depression, truancy, defiance, drug/alcohol use and related problems.
Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge uses an outdoor therapy model, supplemented by regular therapy sessions with professional clinicians. These sessions include individual, group, and family (via telephone) therapy, as well as a 12-Step oriented substance abuse group and an art therapy group. In addition to their telephone family therapy sessions, students have a once-weekly telephone call with their parents.
The young people at Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge sleep in rustic wooden cabins that are scattered throughout the wooded campus. There are generally four students to a cabin, and the cabins have no amenities, save for heat from a propane fired system. The cabins are gathered together in single-gender groups of four; an enclosed building with flush toilets is nearby. There are also separate shower buildings for the boys and the girls, although I did not have a chance to view these.
The educational part of the program takes place in a separate school building, where the kids spend most of their weekdays. Although small and even somewhat cramped, the school had a pleasant, serious, students-at-work quality on the day of my visit. I observed a boys' class and a girls' class (all classes are single gender), and in both of them the kids were extremely absorbed in their work, some reading books, some writing in workbooks, some engaged in a lesson on their computer. Here and there a teacher or counselor was quietly helping an attentive student with his or her work. The serious, hushed atmosphere was like that of a college library just before final exam time, certainly not like a high school with boisterous teens. Viewing the school gave me an understanding of why the girls in the lunchroom had spoken so positively about their school experience at Eckerd Academy
On my visit, I was able to meet with and interview some members of the leadership team at Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge. These included Keith Bishop, Program Director, Sam Shoemaker, Clinical Director, John Watson, Master Counselor, and Matt Shock, Co-Director of Education. I was told that Keith and John, along with the Executive Director, Tim McMahon, all shared a background of working together at a nearby publicly funded state program for troubled teens. Tim and Keith have been at Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge since its founding, when the parent organization, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, converted what had previously been a program for publicly funded kids into the current, private parent choice school that it is now.
In describing their program, the leadership team members emphasized their use of the Positive Peer Culture Model, with considerable integration across programs and disciplines. For example, Sam, the Clinical Director, pointed out that his four therapists regularly interact with and read the case notes prepared by the front line counselors. Matt, the Co-Director of Education, explained that the counselors routinely assist the teachers in the school (something that I did observe). The leadership team also wanted to make sure that I understood the important integrating role played by Eckerd Academy's Master Treatment Plan, including the fact that students and parents - apparently not just Eckerd Academy professional staff - play a role in developing and modifying these plans.
Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The program is accredited the Committee on Accreditation, and it is a member of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps. I was told that Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge is licensed by the State of Georgia as a Residential Treatment Program. It is also SEVIS approved for international students.
About the Author: Stephen Migden, PhD, ABPP is a psychologist and educational consultant who works with behavior disordered, emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students of all ages. He is the East Coast Liaison to Woodbury Reports, and his office is in Roslyn Heights, New York. Visit www.PsychologicalandEducationalServices.com or call 516-625-0824 for more information.