Located on a 25-acre ranch an hour north of Houston, Excel Academy, with 79 students at the time of my visit, is a highly structured college preparation school for children who are struggling with academics and behavior. Drug problems are common among entering students, so recovery and sobriety perspectives are strongly integrated into the program. Structure and academics are emphasized in this school, with some supplemental counseling. This concept leads some educational consultants to view Excel Academy as more of an Emotional Growth school than most others in the network of schools and programs currently utilized by the educational consultants.
While watching the students move around the campus, it was obvious the school has a strong structure. Although the students visited with each other while informally moving between classes, there was no “fooling around” such as a visitor would see at most mainstream schools. All seemed intent on what they were supposed to be doing, which strongly indicated the students were interacting within a well-specified structure. Sprinkled among the students were a few dressed in Orange jumpsuits. It was explained that these students, through their attitudes or actions, appear to be a “run-risk.” They are required to wear the brightly colored Orange jump suits until it is determined they won’t do something as irresponsible and potentially dangerous as running away. The jump suits are an obvious way for the staff and other students to identify the ones needing extra attention. It also discourages any runs because if a student does run away, it would be difficult for them to blend into the local community. I talked to a couple students dressed in the jump suits, and they did not seem to feel it was a humiliation, but admitted it was a visible recognition of their attitude struggles. Director Sally Keith observed Excel Academy has had very few runs.
Keith emphasizes that much of their approach is to hook students through challenging academics. For example, most of the students at one time or another during their stay at Excel completes a 50-page essay for honors. I saw several of those projects posted around the academic building, and the work and care put into them were impressive for high school students. This project is the highlight of a serious effort to do academic recovery for their students. Classes are from eight to noon, and from one to four, which means a significant portion of their day is devoted to academics. This schedule also includes a number of their experiential and emotional growth activities, consisting of Life Skills, scuba diving, and climbing. As part of their daily responsibilities, the students participate in a horse program, as well as working with and caring for a variety of other animals. As a result, the program and the academics are closely integrated. This structure allows the teachers to focus on academics, without the responsibility of being disciplinarians. The staff takes care of the consequences for behavior or attitude problems that come up in the classroom.
Depending on the student’s academic needs, they can work on the Junior High level, High School level, or College level. At the time of my visit, there were about a dozen students working on college course work. The Academy’s goal is to get all the students into college preparatory course work, except of course, those already doing college work.
The complexion of the student body tends to be older teens, with about half their student body coming from Texas.
Since my prior visits, the most obvious change was the addition of the swimming pool. Plans are in the works to remodel the existing buildings to a more modern, southwestern type appearance. The Academy is also increasing parental involvement by emphasizing more seminars, school visits and contacts with parents when they return home.