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Extended Insights

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Posted: Jun 2, 2006 12:57


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Ascent, Boulder Creek Academy, Northwest Academy
Naples and Bonners Ferry, Idaho

By: Judith E. Bessette, Ed.D., Compass Educational Consulting, Nashotah, WI

Kinder and gentler…but still effective is an apt way to describe what I experienced in a recent visit to the newly reinvented north Idaho schools - Northwest Academy (NWA), Boulder Creek Academy (BCA) and Ascent. Several months after the abrupt closure of the majority of former CEDU Schools, Universal Health Systems (UHS) was successful in seeking approval from the bankruptcy court to purchase the Idaho properties. UHS is a large health care management system, which operates acute care facilities, as well as behavioral health facilities across the country. UHS has owned and operated Provo Canyon for several years now and recently purchased several residential facilities that serve adjudicated youth.

You feel the difference on all three campuses because that difference reflects the collective vision of today's leadership in north Idaho. It is a vision that is working to be in tune with today's world and accentuates the positive that every teenager brings with them.

Much that was in place before the closure of the schools last March is still in place…Northwest caters to 17 year olds; Boulder Creek to the immature, awkward kid who needs to be steered to the right path while also dealing with a genuine learning difference; and Ascent still uses a base camp approach to the wilderness experience.

Firmly anchored in the historical basis that NWA, BCA and Ascent were built on, I saw a kinder, gentler approach. Today, all three campuses say they have incorporated credentialed therapists in their day-to-day operations; added certified teachers; developed a better understanding of the psychological and psychiatric needs that many of today's troubled teens are struggling with and are more accepting of the psychotropic medications many of their students need. The addition of a 20-year veteran substance abuse expert to lead the programs' therapeutic services has strengthened the latter positive changes. The staff pointed out that there is also a better integration of personal growth programming with individual and group therapy.

Prior to the closure of the schools, the staff said they had been consumed by the need to meet average daily census requirements for many months, which left little or no time to take advantage of the opportunities for change or quality improvements. After the schools closed, the staff had a unique opportunity to carefully examine their operations and develop a new model…one that made it easier to change the old ways of thinking that had become dated and passé while holding steadfast to their best practices.

According to the heads at all three programs, they intentionally retained those key staff members who willingly embraced change. Just as intentionally, they avoided hiring back those staff members who were so married to the way things used to be, that the necessary changes would have stood little chance of taking hold. Perhaps most importantly, the staff at all three programs said they approach the change process itself in a different way. The kinder, gentler approach I saw now focuses on identifying core strengths in the students and helping the kids build on these strengths in order to make lasting change.

So far, the union between Universal Health and the north Idaho schools seems kinder and gentler than past relationships. According to those I spoke with, Universal Health has given staff a genuine voice in developing the plans for the future, including several capital improvements that are currently underway.

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