Academy at Swift River (ASR), located in a rural setting in western Massachusetts, is a co-educational, college preparatory therapeutic boarding school. The stated goal is to integrate high quality clinical services with a challenging yet supportive academic program.
Founded in 1997, ASR has recently undergone significant changes under the leadership of Executive Director Don Vardell, formerly of Peninsula Village RTC. I had the opportunity to meet with Don and almost all of his senior management team, most of whom came on board about 18 months ago. Aside from Don, other members of the team include Clinical Services Director Frank Bartolomeo, formerly of MacLean Hospital, and Educational Services Director Josh Becker, who came to ASR after a career in higher education. The group comes across as knowledgeable and focused, with a clear sense of their mission, which is to transition ASR from its former emotional growth model to a new, more clinical, therapeutic model. According to Don, a major aspect of this change will be clearer delineation of the professional roles of clinicians and educators, with a concomitant increase in the integration of services (as opposed to blurring of boundaries).
Almost all ASR students arrive from a Wilderness Program. Comprehensive psychological evaluation prior to admission is also strongly encouraged. Pathways, the 4-6 week intake/ transition program, is designed to build on the Wilderness experience. It occurs during the first half of the day, when the more veteran students are in their academic classes. Pathways builds on the soft and hard skills learned in wilderness, thus increasing the likelihood that the ASR experience will be a successful one.
All students receive individual therapy once a week, group therapy three times a week, and some type of substance abuse related assistance, which depending on the need, ranges from substance abuse education to individual or group treatment. ASR attempts to individualize the clinical treatment and uses a relational rather than behavioral treatment model. As a result, there is not a strict behavioral level system. According to Don, a unique aspect of the program is the fairly rapid involvement of parents, who participate in a goal-setting meeting, known as the Working Visit, after their child has been at ASR only four weeks. Discussing the program's strengths, Don also identified it as a member of the Aspen Education Group, which allows ASR to draw on the numerous resources of this national organization. The average length of stay is 15-18 months and considerable attention is given to post-discharge follow-up through the Alumni/ Transitional Care Coordinator, who is a telephone-based coach and mentor to graduates of the program and their parents.
On my visit, I sat in on an English class with about ten students studying two poems by a contemporary poet. All of the students seemed genuinely engaged in the discussion and attentive to the young woman who was their teacher. She led the discussion in a quiet yet effective manner. Student volunteers read the poems aloud, and the entire class discussed them. Everyone seemed comfortable about sharing their understanding of the poem and any disagreements were respectful. It seemed like a very positive learning experience.
The three students with whom I had lunch were a diverse group and had arrived at ASR from Asia, New England and the New York area; each student had been in the program for a variable amount of time ranging from two to ten months. They, and my two tour guides (a boy and a girl who'd each been at ASR a little over one year) impressed me as open and honest in providing generally positive assessments of their experiences at ASR. All reported they had benefited from the program and their thoughtful, self-reflective and honest ways of speaking suggested that they had. Each said they experienced an atmosphere of support, community and emotional safety. Only the students who had been in the program for over a year had clear, apparently realistic plans for their futures. According to the staff, 100 percent of their graduates attend their first or second choice college.
The students I spoke with identified music as a strength among electives. They said guitar and keyboard/ piano were the most popular instruments. The dorms seemed comfortable and most of the rooms housed from two to four students. The boys' dorms are attached at either end of the main administration building. The girls' dorms are in two separate buildings. The main academic building is at the other end of the rolling campus, past an open field and a set of tennis courts.
The population at ASR is fairly typical of the students I've come to expect at a college prep emotional growth or therapeutic boarding school-bright but underachieving kids whose emotional or family problems led them to make self-defeating decisions about peers, goals, impulse expression, sex, drug/ alcohol use, etc. Some of the diagnoses of ASR students include ODD, ADHD, mood disorders and PTSD. Students with mild learning disabilities are accepted, but there are no specific support services, such as remediation or resource room, for such a student. There is, however, an academic mentor available to teach study skills, time management, etc. Although ASR provides a supportive environment with small classes, its academically demanding college prep curriculum dictates that it cannot take students who are below average intellectually. Also, because of its college preparatory focus, ASR does not have a vocational component. About 60-70 percent of students are on some type of psychiatric medication, and there are three part-time psychiatric consultants available. ASR is not equipped to deal with students who are fire-setters, assaultive, actively suicidal or psychotic at the time of application.
About the Author: Stephen Migden, PhD, is a psychologist and educational consultant who works with behavior disordered, emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students of all ages. His office is in Roslyn Heights, New York. Visit Dr. Migden's website at www.psychologicalandeducationalservices.com or call 516-625-0824 for more information.