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Private schools that turn around troubled teens

Physical activities such as boxing and rock climbing are part of the military themed education at Robert Land Academy in Wellandport, Ont. Sergeant Major Paul Zahra, right, puts one his charges through a boxing drill.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Four years ago, Laurianne McCarville and her husband were beyond frustrated. Their son, Steven, who had a learning disability, was floundering in Grade 9. His grades had dropped, he was defiant and angry, and he was getting into trouble.

The McCarvilles were terrified of what might happen if their son continued on that path. So Ms. McCarville went on the Internet, typing in searches for "son who won't listen," desperate to find any information that might help. A private military boarding school that caters to troubled teen boys, called the Robert Land Academy, kept popping up in her searches, she now chuckles.

Finally, she couldn't ignore the information any more and made a call to the school, located in Wellandport, Ont. "I remember thinking, 'How can we afford this?'" says Ms. McCarville. The family lives in Regina.

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The intake officer she spoke with on the other end ultimately changed her mind, saying, "How much longer do you want to live like this?"

In the years since, Ms. McCarville says her son's progress can be called nothing but a complete "turnaround," — from a student who was struggling academically to graduating in the Top 3 of his class in his final year.

Unfortunately, situations like the McCarvilles's are not uncommon. Many teens with behavioural, learning or emotional difficulties cannot function well in the regular school system. And parents find that traditional private schools do not cater to children who have special needs either, as they are focused on academic achievement.

But there are a growing number of private schools that cater specifically to difficult-to-manage teens.

"As research and development into helping kids and teens with special needs, whether behavioral, physical or mental, continues to grow, we see new specialized educational models and schools opening up. In particular, we have seen an increase in parents looking for these programs," says Erin McLaughlin, communications specialist for Our Kids Canada, a Canadian information resource on private schools.

At Robert Land ($46,000 a year), Dean David Harley says the school uses the military theme as a model to "justify a lot of additional structure." The school's 125 students are admitted as recruits and move up the ranks via good behavior and academic achievement.

Dr. Harley says Robert Land specifically accepts adolescent boys (Grades 6-12) whose "temperament gets them into trouble.

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"Most of the boys would be characterized by the fact that they are underachieving but they have a lot more potential than they are demonstrating."

Many have ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or other learning difficulties. The program focuses on helping to manage these difficulties and improve behaviour. The school's teaching methods differ according to teens' ages and developmental stages. For example, the focus for grades 9 and 10 is "hands-on" learning and special concentration on skills including math and literacy, because the administration finds that age group enters the school "weakened" in those subjects.

Additionally, the school follows a clean-living philosophy. That means no junk food, no technology (Internet, TV, video games or smart phones) and a great deal of physical activity, including a climbing wall, boxing ring, fishing, paintball and an 80-kilometre overnight march each autumn.

Dr. Harley says many boys undergo a complete transformation, which improves their learning. "If you lose weight, your body image is better, you're feeling good, getting better marks."

Parents are encouraged by the fact that the academic success rate is high. In the past few years 100 per cent of students have gone on to college or university.

Other private schools catering to troubled kids have a different philosophy. The motto at Renaissance Academy, in Utopia, Ont., is "education for all," meaning the administration won't turn anyone away and the school strives to create an education program to fit the child.

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Giancarlo Marchi, the school's creator and headmaster, says Renaissance (tuition $15-$30,000) was developed because he saw an unmet need. "Lots of kids out there just didn't fit into the public school system."

Renaissance typically has 40 students from Grades 1-12, at every level from special needs, such as autism, to gifted students. Most board, though there are some day students. The school uses the provincial curriculum but each child's program is individualized, says Mr. Marchi. Experts, including a psychologists and speech and occupational therapists, also take an active role in designing programs. "We pretty much feel that the program has to fit the child, and not the other way around."

Mr. Marchi says another part of encouraging troubled children is involving them in areas they wouldn't naturally pick, such as horseback riding, art and music.

The focus is not so much on getting into the best universities. "Our job isn't to create good students, it's to enhance these individuals to be better people long-term."

Still other programs in Canada can help teens through a difficult time while ensuring that they continue their studies. Venture Academy (with locations in Springwater, Ont., and Kelowna, B.C.), caters to teens that other schools cannot handle, says executive director Gordon Hay.

"Most kids have already been suspended or are on the verge of getting suspended, with a variety of other problems. Usually there is conflict in the family home."

Not a school but rather an educational support system with a rotating student body of 20-30, Venture (tuition varies) treats teens with substance abuse, clinical disorders, anxiety and depression and cutting. Teens sent there take classes via distance education but have teachers to assist them.

After an assessment and intervention, a customized program is developed. Students also do group therapy, skills building and individual therapy.

The goal is not university acceptance but getting education back on track, says Mr. Hay. However, the current academic average is 85 per cent.

There is also a "very significant family focus," says Mr. Hay. While enrolled anywhere from months to years, students stay with host families trained by Venture. Positive interaction with the host family helps them create good attachments when they return home, he says.

And the school ensures that students begin to take care of their bodies, which leads to more self-confidence, he says. Most attend a CrossFit program and many continue it once they leave.

Since completing treatment for substance abuse last year, Kinsey Maxwell of Ottawa is now doing CrossFit competitions with her mother, Karen Maxwell.

Now back in her regular school in Grade 12, she is more attached to her family, has positive peer relationships, and is talking about a law degree.

"Our family as a unit has changed. We all have grown so much for this experience because when you come so close to losing something so precious, it just impacts the way you think about everything," says Ms. Maxwell.

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