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Posted: Jun 6, 2007 06:06


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Atenas, Costa Rica
Heather Tracy, EdM, Executive Director
414-921-1388 [USA Call forward]

Visit by: Loi Eberle, March 20, 2007

My recent visit to Summit Academy [NSA] revealed how this program has evolved from its origins as Coronado Academy, formerly on the Pacific Coast in Quepos, Costa Rica. While maintaining some original teachers and clinicians, its new owners have changed its name, developed its vision, and moved its campus to the mountains of Atenas. This transitional therapeutic boarding school now offers experiential education, personal growth and college prep academics to only 18 males, ages 15 to 18.

NSA seeks students appropriate for their milieu who are willing to enroll for at least one year. Clinical staff and the co-owners make admission decisions based on student essays and student and parent interviews. Co-owners include: Executive Director, Heather Tracy; Personal Growth Director, Mario Duran; Experiential Education Director, Andy Myers; and Operations director, James Woody. They rule out students with a conduct disorder diagnosis, chemical dependency, or psychosis, but will consider bipolar students who are stable on medication as well as students with diabetes. The staff carefully screens all students' medical histories for appropriateness for the week-long wilderness "Aventuras" occurring every five weeks and the periodic travel home. Students with serious drug behaviors are inappropriate though they will consider students whose drug history is a secondary issue of self-medication.

I toured the campus with some well groomed, friendly students who said they enjoyed being in Costa Rica. After a delicious lunch, I watched students' friendly exchange as they walked by the pool on the way to the student lounge in the administration building. Some students were already there, listening to music and reading in over-stuffed reclining chairs. When asked what they wanted in their lounge when it was being decorated, students had requested these chairs.

The school's architecture is typical of Costa Rica, as is the warmth and friendliness of the staff. The relationship between the students and teachers was friendly and engaged when they showed me examples of their work and discussed the Shakespeare play they were reading. Teachers gave me examples of how they used Multiple Intelligences education in their small classes. The four teachers provide: three levels of Spanish, English, Humanities, Science, Mathematics and Woodshop. NSA's academic program, accredited by SACS as a "Site of New Summit School", a day school in Jackson, MS, is currently undergoing the accreditation process to become an independent site.

While showing me their small but comfortable bedrooms, students talked excitedly about their honor code system, part of NSA's non-punitive process and relationship-based approach. Students can earn honor status and have input into the creation/modification of their rules and consequences by submitting proposals and interacting with administration during the decision making process. Students and staff also participate in Honor Council Meetings to determine natural and artificial consequences of incidents arising from negative as well as positive behaviors and attitudes. The students were very animated during our discussion, explaining their commitment to the process because it gave them a sense of ownership.

Students also spoke excitedly about their recent Aventura experiences. Andy Myers, Experiential Education Director, explained that Recreational Aventuras occur during quarterly school breaks. They can include a trip to Peru, taking a SCUBA certification course, or staying with an indigenous BriBri Indian family. The more challenging Integrated Aventuras, part of the academic curriculum, integrate personal growth activities, science instruction and experiential education. Different ecological zones are studied and used as metaphors for personal/family/community dynamics. Also during this time they can certify in Swift Water Rescue and Wilderness Advanced First Aid. I spoke with a student who proudly described his recent completion of the fourth Aventura, part of the graduation transition. Students had hiked Chirripo, the second tallest mountain in Central America, 13,000 feet in elevation.

Students spend Sundays with a Costa Rican family, usually attending church, joining in family recreation and sharing dinner. Once reaching the appropriate trust level, students can petition to "date" local Tica girls. NSA staff meets the girl and the family. If approved, the student is allowed a chaperoned visit at the family's house, can invite her on NSA recreational activities or talk with her on the bench in the public park. This provides great motivation to learn Spanish! NSA also hosts dances and community picnics every seven to eight weeks.

Andy showed me where the NSA students had "real life" work experience internships in the town of Atenas. These include mechanics, cooking, movie rental, computer repair and working in a clothing store. Community service is also required of the students, which currently includes recycling, translating National Geographic magazines for the local library, teaching English classes for children and organizing community video nights for local teens. NSA students speak fondly of the community and people in town express appreciation for the NSA student work. Before a student begins interacting with the local community, Andy and NSA staff hold meetings to "train" the host family and the "boss" who hires him.

The students also participate in individual and milieu therapy with three to four licensed Master level therapists who work on evenings and weekends to provide a more extensive milieu therapy experience for the students. The therapists use a humanistic, non-punitive, non-confrontational, individualized process, based on relationships and continuous personal growth. Students attend three groups per week, one for specialized group therapy, one for student to student "feedback," and one that is a community meeting. Dr. Kogel, a psychiatrist, sees several of their students every two weeks. The therapeutic program is licensed by PANI (the Costa Rican child welfare organization) which requires strict regulations for student living standards, immigration regulations and treatment of students. Though not required to comply with US program licensing requirements, NSA chooses to comply.

During my visit, I learned enrollment at NSA beyond the one year commitment is based on personal progress and the strength of the transition plan. I was very impressed with the enthusiasm the directors and staff had for helping their students develop academic skill, self-sufficiency, confidence, resourcefulness and independence. I became convinced of their premise that the NSA's cultural immersion helps students clarify values, relationships, and life goals and "looks great on a college application". Students at NSA are offered exciting opportunities, and I feel confident they will be nurtured, challenged and guided in ways that can help them for a lifetime.

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