Visit Reports
Visit Reports

Aug 15, 2008, 05:51

Conroe, Texas
Barbara L. Potignano, Admissions Director

Visit By: Brian Proctor, IECA, March 11, 2008

This really is The New EXCEL!

EXCEL bills itself as a "Sober Academy" and it is - in every way. EXCEL Academy of Texas no longer is the 'last chance academy.' The orange jumpsuits and flip-flops that were so noticeable during my first visit in April 2002 are long gone.

Don Vardell, Executive Director, has become the driving force behind the 'new' EXCEL. He arrived on the EXCEL scene in August 2007. At that time, EXCEL Academy had 110 students. From August 2007 to January 2008, through attrition, redirection to more appropriate programs, and a large graduation in December 2007, the enrollment shrank to 15 students. The restructuring of EXCEL Academy began in earnest in January 2008.

We arrived at EXCEL a little after 9:00 am. At 9:30, we were given a very thorough presentation of the Academy by Don Vardell, Barbara Potignano, Director of Admissions, Scott Spaw, Director of Program and Services, Duncan McGinnis, Academic Director, and Michael Charnley, Manager of Program and Services, who spoke on Student Life. Following the presentation, we had a one-hour campus tour followed by lunch at a local restaurant.

EXCEL Academy is located about one hour north of Houston, Texas, on a beautiful 35-acre campus in a retreat-like setting. The current mission statement - hammered out in January 2008 - is "to offer a college preparatory academic curriculum while providing support to develop skills for making right choices, maintaining and renewing healthy relationships, and living a life in recovery from drugs and alcohol." EXCEL is a co-ed sober academy and can be classified as a specialty therapeutic boarding school with integrated evidence-based clinical services. The students follow the traditional 12-Step philosophy and attend Alcoholic Anonymous meetings both on and off campus. A great deal of emphasis is placed on transparency and communication, not only on campus but also with the entire family of each student. The length of stay is flexible, with a typical student attending between six and twelve months, though average length of stay currently is six months.

When we visited, there were 20 students registered at the Academy. The plan of the 'new' EXCEL is to increase enrollment to 35, and plans for the future have a maximum enrollment of 56 students. Since our visit corresponded with Spring Break at the Academy, several of the students were on pre-graduation home visits, while others were on a field trip in Houston. There were no academic classes being conducted.

The typical student must be compliant and demonstrate that he or she needs the EXCEL program. His/ Her primary issue is substance abuse and the student needs a year of sobriety in a structured environment to regain their academic potential. EXCEL Academy does not accept escorted students. The threshold IQ for academic acceptance is approximately 90, but this can be flexible based on the possibility the student might have been 'under the influence' at the time the testing took place. Other traits a typical EXCEL student manifests are: an unmotivated academic achiever, needs high school grades 9 through 12, has family relationship problems, has had previous short-term intervention and/or is college bound.

A majority of the EXCEL students come from wilderness or previous interventions such as 28- to 45-day drug and alcohol treatment programs, or more traditional schools that do not specialize in substance abuse. EXCEL is also able to work with students who come directly from home.

EXCEL Academy provides daily on-campus 12-Step meetings as well as off-campus meetings for students that have earned the privilege via their performance based level system. The treatment teams address co-occurring issues using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), behavioral therapy and reality therapy. Students are assigned to their primary therapist upon arrival and they meet one-on-one once a week. There are counseling facilitated group sessions and skill-building workshops where issues are addressed. The family program includes parent seminars, phone conferences (weekly) and a parent check-in website. Families are invited to visit once per month on campus after the student reaches Level Two. Off-campus and home visits are earned as the student progresses through the level system. Much of this family interaction is individualized.

EXCEL Academy is accredited by SACS - Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and CASI - Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation. This special purpose school academic credential allows students to transfer credits received at EXCEL to other secondary and post-secondary institutions.

Average class size is 10 students but in the 9th and 10th grades the classes are smaller than 10. The Academy does accept students with mild to moderate learning differences but provides for only minor accommodations. The academic calendar is divided into three 17-week trimesters.

Student life at EXCEL Academy is a balance of work, play (sober fun) and recovery related skill building. Choices are constantly provided, as EXCEL does not want to "program" their students too much. A flexible dress code stresses 'clean casuals'. Males are allowed to have some facial hair provided it is neatly trimmed.

The sports facilities are quite extensive. There is a fully equipped weight room, a small swimming pool for pleasure dips, a full football and baseball facility (batting practice was taking place when we toured), an athletics program, an outdoor basketball court and a large pond were the kids can fish from the shore. A mountain bike trail is currently under construction.

The residences that we toured were very clean and neat, and all had extensive and well-appointed common room areas.

I met two students while we were on tour. They were neatly dressed and very 'clean cut'. Both were enthusiastic and effervescent about how the EXCEL program had helped with their recovery. They were very proud of their sobriety. I asked them what, in their opinion, was the best part of the program. One said he really liked finally getting his academics on track, and now, he has the possibility of going to a college of his choice. The other student told me that leading an on campus AA meeting was one of his best experiences. He went on to say that he was turning 18 in a couple of weeks and would be staying at EXCEL until he had completed all his credits for his Senior High School graduation.

EXCEL Academy has very strong leadership, a dedicated faculty and a very strong clinical team and program. I highly recommend it for a teenager with substance abuse that has come to a position in their life that they want to go down the road to recovery.

About the Author: Brian Proctor is an Educational Consultant from Coburg, Ontario, Canada. He is a member of the IECA, President of an association of United States Admissions Officers and Educational Consultants called Round Table which is made up of over 80 NAIS** schools and consultants. Contact Brian at,, or call 905-372-7743 for more information.

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