In an interview with Woodbury Reports, Inc. President, Lon Woodbury and Co-Editor Kathy Nussberger on January 25, 2006, Aspen Education Group CEO, Elliot Sainer, shared his knowledge and personal insights on the evolution of Aspen and the parent-choice industry.
"I believe there are three main aspects to the industry's evolution: First, we see an escalation in families seeking help; second, the heightened need for specialized programs; and third, an increased demand for helping kids with a higher acuity," Sainer said. "Two examples of this evolution would include the increased demand for middle school programs for kids ages 10-12, and a greater need for specialized programs such as substance abuse. As opposed to the past, we do appear to see an increase in middle school age kids experimenting with drugs and other substances. From my conversations with various people it does appear that kids are experimenting with drugs at a younger age."
Sainer explained that Aspen is focusing on these demands by recruiting top people with a high level of clinical competence and providing greater geographic access to programs. "In contrast to Aspen five years ago, today, we deliberately developed more programs on the east coast because of the higher population levels and the parents' preference to keep their kids regionally located."
Aspen is also trying to effect change by expending more resources and efforts to demonstrate how they are making a difference and providing value to their clients. "This summer we will wrap up a three-year clinical outcome study that is examining, through objective measurable standards, the clinical indicators in our residential division. Conducted by an independent third-party company, the study will determine whether we are making a clinical difference with kids."
Sainer added that the data will allow Aspen to demonstrate they are making a clear difference. Preliminary results from the study support this. "We also spend a lot of time on best practices and ways to learn from each other. We believe our size is an advantage because it allows us to implement the components that are working in one program into another program."
Lon Woodbury asked whether Sainer thought the "generalist" (therapeutic community emotional growth) type of school such as Mount Bachelor Academy or the former CEDU program, Rocky Mountain Academy, was becoming less important with the demand for more clinical specialization.
"I wouldn't say less important, but I think the generalist school, as you defined generalist school, is going to have to really improve their clinical competence or they are going to be out of business. If you go back 10 years and make a list of the top schools at that time, you'd have several on that list that aren't even around today. Cascade would be the classic example but so would a few of the generalist CEDU schools. In my opinion, these schools didn't change with the times and perhaps failed to meet the demands of clinical competence. Fairly or unfairly, that's measured by families or referral sources; a lot of the programs didn't have people with both the experience and licensure to help kids clinically on staff. We experienced this ourselves with some of our programs, but we had the financial and organizational structure in place to meet the demand and evolve."
Sainer also discussed the evolution of parents and his belief that they are now demanding more program accountability both in terms of outcomes and communication. "Whether people like it or not, parents use the internet to research programs and narrow down their choices of which ones to visit or select for their child. I wouldn't say parents are more concerned today about their kids then they were five years ago, but I think they hold programs and staff to a higher standard."
Woodbury asked about Aspen's plans for the European market, and Sainer explained that at this point, Aspen has not really researched that area. "We are opening a Healthy Living Academy (weight loss) summer program this year in the United Kingdom (UK), which is experiencing a growing epidemic of obesity similar to the US. But beyond testing the water, we have not spent much time looking into foreign markets because there is enough to do domestically. In 2005, Aspen Education Group took care of about 4,000 kids from all 50 US states and 16 foreign countries. The UK was the single largest foreign country referral source."
Elliot Sainer, CEO and co-founder of Aspen Education Group, has almost 30 years experience as a leader in education and behavioral healthcare. Prior to founding Aspen, he was the CEO of several healthcare organizations as well as Western Regional Director of the nation's largest behavioral healthcare company. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Education Industry Association and Board of Councilors of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. In 2004, he received the Entrepreneurial Leadership Award of the Education Industry Association. In 2001 and 2002, he was honored as a Finalist in the Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Greater Los Angeles area. Sainer was named one of the 100 most influential healthcare leaders in California in 1997. From its inception as Aspen Education Group in 1998, the company has grown into what it is today with 32 programs in 12 states. Sainer received his MBA degree from George Washington University and his BA from the University of Pittsburgh.
Editors Note: In the March 2006 edition of the Woodbury Reports, Inc. Newsletter, we will continue the interview by exploring Aspen's rapid growth, management style, the company's view of the future and the role educational consultants will play in that future.