Extended Insights
Extended Insights

Jun 23, 2008, 15:21

Deer Lodge, TN
Suches, GA
Brooksville, FL


Visit by: Loi Eberle, MA, IECA
February 17-18, 2008

Eckerd Youth Alternatives (EYA) has helped more than 70,000 youth in public programs since they were founded by Jack and Ruth Eckerd in 1968. Eckerd eventually created 45 public adjudication programs in seven states. Currently EYA operates 18 Therapeutic Outdoor Treatment Programs and three recently privatized academies. Though I have visited Eckerd Academy in Brooksville, FL, in the past, this was my first visit to the Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge in Suches, GA, and Eckerd Academy in Deer Lodge, TN.

Founder Jack Eckerd, a civic-minded pharmacist and philanthropist, originally aimed to "turn tax users into tax payers" by teaching inmates job skills. He and Ruth soon realized they needed to reach youth before they got in trouble and became interested in Campbell Loughmiller's Wilderness Program for Youth, the first of its kind. Sponsored by the Salesmanship Club, Loughmiller's program enrolled inner city children from Dallas, TX. Upon seeing it, Eckerd convinced Loughmiller and his associates, Ken Eggert and Buford McKenzie, to help him start one. This goal was accomplished in 1968 when they started the first Wilderness Education System in Brooksville, FL. Soon after that, Everett Lindstrom, also with the Salesmanship Club, came to Central FL to help Eckerd establish the girl's program. While the origins of many wilderness programs reach back to the Salesmanship Club, the Eckerd programs were unique in that they combined a wilderness program with a school.

Recently the decision to privatize the three academies was facilitated by Richard Wentworth, Director of the Eckerd Academy at Deer Lodge, TN. Eckerd Academy at Brooksville, FL, was then privatized under the directorship of Patrick Curley. Most recently, Tim McMahon, Director of Eckerd Academy of the Blue Ridge, led their re-opening as a private program.

EYA's privatizing process involved three strategies according to Richard Wentworth, and "every step of the way they emphasized the nurturing, relationship based, reality therapy, non-confrontational accountability-based Eckerd Model." Conversations with staff members at the TN and GA programs attributed their program effectiveness and positive staff morale to this model.

EYA's first privatization strategy involved reconfiguring the staff, adding clinicians even to the FL program which was already JCAHO accredited. Adding teachers certified in special education and more direct care staff enabled all three programs to achieve a 1:4 staff to student ratio, and provide remedial through AP courses. The three academies are accredited through COA [Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children], SACS [Southern Association of Colleges and Schools] and their state Departments of Education. They are members of NATSAP.

The next privatization strategy involved further development of their original goal of "roughing it easy." Previously the camper/students worked together to build their living structure, a tactic used to improve the group process. When they privatized, they built semi permanent camp sites that better satisfied basic housing needs and re-focused the group work towards chores and therapeutic processes. Charming community "pods" were created for each of the 5-6 groups. Each pod accommodates up to 10 students with 3-4 campers per cabin as well as private cabins for two 24-hour staff nearby who are supplemented by night watchmen. There is also a food preparation and group eating area in each pod with an outdoor wood burning stove for the meals cooked at the campsite over the weekend. Each pod has a space for the Pow Wow fire that occurs at the end of the day to promote discussion, feedback and symbolic activity. For example, a camper might use a stick to represent an irritation which is discussed with the group and then thrown in the fire, in order to extinguish it to start afresh the next day.

EYA's third privatization strategy involved enhancing program services through increased focus on transition planning. They now create aftercare plans before each student is transitioned home and maintain formal communication for one year post graduation. They also focus on teaching students how to build a purposeful peer group while in the program, helping them learn the process of developing beneficial peer relationships when they leave.

While there, I hiked to the pods and spoke privately with students. The newer Blue Ridge program has a smaller census and more of a focus on learning disabilities. The girls' opinions about the program correlated with the amount of time they'd been there; newer residents hadn't yet become as invested in the therapeutic work, though they were all friendly and supportive of each other. The boys expressed pleasure in how quickly they were learning academic skills and earning credits. They encouraged me to seek students who shared their academic goals, wanting to avoid students who wished to be disruptive. While they acknowledged their own previously disruptive behavior, they said they felt more in control of it now.

At Deer Lodge students spoke openly with me about the solutions they used in order to work together more effectively when they experienced a problem with the group. Despite slight grumbling about hiking and chores, the groups expressed pride in chores well done and were friendly, respectful and caring. I ate lunch at Deer Lodge with the entire population of students in the large dining hall and watched how they interacted with "Chief Sara" and "Chief Brent" who presented their assignments and academic themes for the week. Each week a different theme is incorporated into all the classes and elaborated upon in their individualized curriculum. After lunch everyone sang from their songbook of "oldies." Lyrics from the old "hits" selected for the songbook supported the therapeutic work being done.

I visited the computer labs and spoke with the teachers at both programs. Both programs have teacher-led classes and individualized, self-paced curriculum, along with one-on-one instruction for reading and language remediation. Software for career exploration and occasional field trips are incorporated into their curriculum, and life skills are part of their daily activities.

Many of the students I talked with in both programs were open about "anger management issues" and felt their group helped them deal with their problem. They also gave me examples of how everyone seemed willing to re-focus and re-schedule their activities if a particular individual was struggling. In both programs I observed qualified and enthusiastic staff who described their alignment with the childcentered, 40 year Eckerd tradition. All the staff with whom I spoke seemed to genuinely care for and nurture the students.

Richard Wentworth described their typical students as having the basic foundations of pro-social behavior that had simply gone astray. This environment was designed to help them re-connect with their roots. He suggested they would not be appropriate for those who had truly developed more anti-social behavior. The clinical staff listed depression, anxiety, ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder as typical student diagnoses.

What I saw when visiting all three of the Eckerd academies was an environment where students can be nurtured and encouraged to thrive. The wilderness components encourage self-exploration and positive peer interaction, while the academics offer some individualization. Eckerd's philosophy of "Roughing it Easy" has inspired a nurturing milieu that encourages active engagement in life's daily chores while living in a beautiful outdoor environment. At these three EYA academies, students are given opportunities for honest interaction, academic achievement, positive family relationships and self-efficacy.

© Copyright 2012 by Woodbury Reports, Inc.