Apr 11, 2008, 06:20

by: Lon Woodbury

With all the talk of a national economic downturn and even whispers of the word "Recession" in the air, it looks like some of the schools and programs in the network of residential parent-choice network for struggling teens might have some rough spots ahead. In the private sector, an economic downturn is a natural occurrence that can result in weeding out those schools and programs that are not adequately meeting the needs of their students and parents, or not letting the world know they exist. Those that best meet the needs of the students and their parents and are well known will not only survive but can thrive even in an economic downturn.

This kind of economic adjustment happens on a regular basis, but private emotional growth/therapeutic schools and programs have some unique aspects that need to be kept in mind which are different from most private organizations. Those that survive will be the ones which best understand these and act accordingly, including letting parents know of their unique service.

These unique aspects include individualized services which recognize that problems occur in a family context, and a clear understanding of the kind of student problems with which they work best. The successful schools and programs also avoid gearing their services to some "average" student or trying to be "all things to all people" by trying to handle too wide a variety of student problems. They also stay away from "corporate mass production," thinking. Educating students should be an attempt to teach each to achieve his or her unique potential rather than turning out students to fit some "mass production" mold.

Although the following steps are always important to the success of an emotional growth/therapeutic residential school or program, if the economy goes into the downturn predicted by many economic observers, these steps will be vital for a school or program to survive! If a school or program can do all of them, so much the better.

Marketing becomes vital. Since parents make the final decision as to enrollment applications, and since a higher percentage will become cash strapped in an economic downturn, a school will have to appeal to more parents to keep its student body at optimum size. Advertising can be part of this, but press releases, articles, newsletters, parent groups and several other activities to reach out to the public are also important steps a school or program can take to get its message out. The more troubled the economy is, the more emphasis must be made in marketing. In my experience, I have seen many mediocre programs with strong marketing survive, while few strong programs with weak marketing survive. The temptation to cut marketing costs is great when school income falters which can easily happen in an economic downturn. But cutting costs by reducing marketing efforts only addresses the symptom, while increasing marketing efforts is the best way to solve the problem.

Parent Services must be strong. Parents are paying the bill and have a right to be reassured their child is receiving proper care. They need to be adequately updated on their child's progress and what is happening at the school or program. It is the school's responsibility to address the parents' concerns no matter how needsy the parents are. One school that was very strong in this area started with the assumption that every enrollment brought in three people - the student, mom and dad (actually in our society that also included all kinds of step-relations). In addition to regular phone updates, the school or program can have regular on-campus parent meetings, a newsletter, email blasts and an Internet discussion board for parents to communicate and support each other. Satisfied parents are a good source of referrals, and the worst thing that can happen to a school or program is to have parents and ex-parents bad-mouthing the school simply because the parents felt isolated or unsupported.

Research is increasingly important to the reputation of a school or program. As parents and other professionals demand a school prove its effectiveness, a school or program can no longer rely on anecdotal stories. Outcome studies and academically conducted studies will be increasingly asked for to "prove" their effectiveness. Those schools and programs that have those studies and make them broadly available will have an advantage. Those that don't have them, or only publish the parts that are favorable will be at a disadvantage.

Schools and Programs that are designed to meet the Individual needs of their students and families are the basic appeal of this network, as opposed to forcing a child to fit into some preconceived mold a program might have of its students. Parents want to know that their child and his/her unique issues are known to the staff and that the staff is helping their child work on those specific issues. Few things are more distressing to a parent than talking to a counselor and then wondering if the counselor even knows their child.

This network is very much a Niche business and a school or program must have a clear definition of the type of student with which the school or program works best. They must be specific and consistent in their description of suitable students and who they actually enroll. Any school or program that drifts into an "all things to all people" mentality will have to struggle with students who are not a good match, resulting in problems that will hurt their reputation. For this reason, who they screen out is about as important as who they actually enroll.

Costs of the program have not been a major concern to maintaining a census when many parents feel flush, but costs become extremely important when more parents are cash strapped such as will happen if we indeed do move into an economic downturn. More parents will choose the cheaper school or program because that is all they feel they can afford. In the last couple of decades tuition increases have greatly outstripped inflation, which have led some Independent Consultants to question if the more expensive programs are pricing themselves out of the market. Price increases over the last couple of decades have come about from a general increase of staff to student ratio from 1:2 to 1:1 or even greater, an increase in highly paid credentialed therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, and the addition of additional benefits like trips to foreign countries. Keeping tuition down is always helpful but can be vital to survival when an increasing number of parents are feeling cash strapped.

There are many other important aspects necessary for a program to weather the storms of economic fluctuations, but these seem to be some of the most important ones. Paying close attention to them increases the chances of a school or program doing well even when the economy becomes a direct challenge.


April 11, 2008


A very good article, well written and very much to the point.

As a new business, based in the UK, we are acutely aware that some challenging times lay ahead.....on both sides of the Atlantic.

Parents are starting to look very closely at the cost consideration... despite the quality of the service on offer and the lack of real alternatives.

We all need to keep our eye on the ball.

Graham Cook
Admissions Director

April 02, 2008


Thanks so much for the advice. I will use it as a "How to " guide.

Deidre Sage Butte
Three Springs, Inc
Southeast Region Referral Relations Liaison

March 28, 2008


Great article! As the director of one such "under advertised and unkown" school, the article was akin to spurs in my side! I am doing all I can to address this crucial, yet often overlooked, arena. I love what we do at Future Men, and it is all I can do to budget more time into the administration side of the business, and not overdo the "hands on". I appreciate the timely advice.

Aaron Boldman
Director, Future Men

March 22, 2008

This was very insightful. We are working now to get regular communication from our program. We were accustomed to an outstanding wilderness program with the best of everything and now we are struggling with a therapist who is new to residential and often can't answer questions or gives spotty answers.

We really believe in the people there and the philosophy but at the cost we are determined to know what is going on and right now there is no formal school report coming home and issues in the residential part of the school is hit and miss from the therapist and our son. We are going to keep pushing for a communication piece that is trifold.

After reading your essay this seems more than reasonable. This service is not something we ever envisioned using but it is a valuable tool to help us and others survive this trip.

Thank you,


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