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Bright But Failing

By Sidney F. Parham, Ph.D.

Most parents, regardless of educational background, have high hopes for their children's academic success. Those with a family tradition of scholastic achievement expect their children to excel pretty much as they did, and will go out of their way to make it happen. Parents who haven't had educational advantages are just as eager---often more so---to see their children succeed in school. For many of them, no sacrifice is too great when it comes to giving their child the education they never had.

So when a once-studious adolescent ends up on academic probation due to behavioral problems, mood disorders or social issues, parents are understandably distressed. They worry not only about the emotional problems their teenager is experiencing, but about the fallout---the lack of effort and enthusiasm that characterize the academic underachiever.

Dealing with a bright but failing teenager can be an enormous challenge for both parents and teachers. Public schools, hard pressed to meet the academic needs of the average student, are rarely equipped to meet the emotional demands of the underachiever. Parents of those facing academic probation or having to repeat classes often consider a boarding school or a military academy just to get their child back on track. But even in those closed and structured environments many troubled teens will continue to underachieve.

Choosing an alternative.

In searching for educational alternatives, parents often seek advice from other parents who have dealt successfully with a troubled teen. Hearing about a program first-hand from someone who's been there can save time, money and frustration when it comes to helping your own bright but failing teen.

Other parents look to independent educational consultants who handle special needs clients. These professionals, many of whom are former educators and guidance counselors, can identify the most suitable school or program for academic underachievers. Depending on the specific problem, recommendations might include therapeutic boarding schools, community-based programs, outdoor therapeutic or wilderness programs, or residential treatment centers---all valid approaches for bright but failing teens.

Today there are hundreds of programs around the country serving 10,000 to 20,000 students annually. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David L. Marcus looked at one such program in his popular book, What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out. His study of the complex world of bright but failing teenagers was conducted at the Academy at Swift River, an emotional growth school in western Massachusetts. The success of his book, and the popular TV reality series "Brat Camp," are indicative of the interest in programs to serve this growing segment of America's twenty-nine million adolescents.

Therapeutic and emotional growth boarding schools are currently regulated like ordinary boarding schools; there are no regulations requiring specific academic or professional credentials for program operators. Congressional bill HR 6353, the "Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008," which is still being debated in Congress, is an attempt to protect adolescents enrolled in these programs by regulating the industry.

Meanwhile, organizations like the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (www.natsap.org) serve as unofficial watchdogs to warn consumers of substandard programs that can do more harm than good, injuring students emotionally, psychologically, and even physically, while doing little to help them academically. More than 170 programs subscribe to NATSAP's ethical principles and practices, and its academic standards.

Residential treatment centers and similar programs are accredited by the health care industry through The Joint Commission, an independent, not-for-profit organization that accredits and certifies more than 15,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States. The Joint Commission seal of approval is an indication that the accredited organization meets the Commission's rigorous standards of care.

Parents who are considering an out-of-home placement for a troubled teen who's struggling academically need to do their homework before deciding on any one program. This could include arranging for the recommended academic or psychological tests, and checking out programs with as many sources as possible. The services of an educational consultant can be particularly helpful during the process. A consultant specializing in bright but failing teens can be found through the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) at www.iecaonline.org.

The Family Foundation School, a therapeutic boarding school for at-risk teens, offers a rigorous academic curriculum, which for the past several years has resulted in 100 percent of FFS graduates being accepted to post-secondary institutions. Alumni currently attend Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and other nationally ranked schools---a major achievement for the bright but failing underachievers who make up the majority of the student body.

For more information about FFS, or to complete an admissions application form, please click here.

 

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