This August is the 10th anniversary of Ch.O.I.C.E. (Changing Our Ideas Concerning Education) Academy, a licensed independent school and treatment program. Ch.O.I.C.E. Academy resides in our CYFS (Children, Youth & Family Services) building at 579 South Barre Road. Ch.O.I.C.E. has recently increased its capacity to serve not only middle and high school students as it has for many years, but also elementary students starting this fall. The 10th Anniversary Celebration will take place on Saturday, August 22nd from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the CYFS building. This celebration is open to all students, staff and collaborators who have worked with the Academy over the past 10 years.
Ch.O.I.C.E. Academy’s primary focus is providing behavioral support and treatment to children and youth who are unable to access their education in a mainstream setting. The Academy actually began as a day treatment collaborative called H.E.A.R.T. (Helping to Empower Adolescents to be Responsible Teens) with the local Washington County school systems in 1997. At H.E.A.R.T., WCMHS (Washington County Mental Health Services) staff worked side by side with local school personnel to provide youth a basic tutorial education while supporting the student to stabilize, establish rapport with school paraprofessional staff and access treatment. This model helped to identify individualized supports necessary to optimize a youth’s opportunity for successful transition back into a mainstream setting. The model also helped improve the capacity of the local school systems by providing on-site training of their staff.
A fundamental principle of H.E.A.R.T. (and of the Academy today) was a student’s and family’s choice to engage in services. No child or youth referred to the Academy is accepted for admission unless the family AND student tour, decide that this placement is appropriate for them and are willing to engage in the treatment provided. This makes a qualitative difference in the school culture and improves treatment results. The primary goal of this requirement is to support children and youth to develop an understanding of the power and responsibility they hold to make choices in their lives. Although H.E.A.R.T. provided strong therapeutic supports, it became apparent during its eight years of operation that the quality of education provided by this model could be much improved if WCMHS sought independent school licensure and adopted responsibility for the educational as well as therapeutic programming. Independent school licensure was pursued in 2004. Working collaboratively with school personnel, WCMHS built a therapeutic education center which opened its doors as Ch.O.I.C.E. Academy in August of 2005 to youth struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges. Since its inception in 2005, Ch.O.I.C.E. has grown and differentiated its services to allow a wide variety of students to get the treatment and education most appropriate for them. The Academy currently has four divisions; Ch.O.I.C.E. Academy High School, Ch.O.I.C.E. Academy Elementary/Middle School (opening our doors to 4th graders this year), Individualized Programs and our School to Work Program. Ch.O.I.C.E. also collaborates with School Based Services to provide tutorial education to students grades 1-6 at Beckley Day Program.
In many ways, Ch.O.I.C.E offers all the “typical” school experiences one would find in a public school. The Academy has school colors (blue and grey) and a school mascot (the scorpion), school spirit days throughout the year, a student council, graduation ceremonies complete with caps and gowns, science experiments, art classes and relationship drama. Ch.O.I.C.E. has field and class trips, transcripts and summer vacation. Yet, it is the structure and intent of the programming around these experiences that differentiates Ch.O.I.C.E. from schools of a more mainstream variety. All students at the Academy earn grades, and high school students earn credits too. The means in which grades are determined is based on the time students are in class, their engagement while present and work that is completed. The philosophy upon which this is founded is that if school work is accommodated to the academic functioning level of each student, measuring these three things is an accurate predictor of their level of success in the class. In review of the data from the 2014-2015 academic calendar year, it is clear that Ch.O.I.C.E. students are highly engaged in their programming and work. In view of the fact that these students had previously been identified as students unable to access their education in a mainstream setting, their accomplishments at Ch.O.I.C.E. are incredible.
Another way the Academy is unique is the relationship between the staff, the students and one another. Each classroom has a very high staff to student ratio that allows for the students to receive treatment and education accommodated to where they are functioning at any time. The students not only have academic goals but also have treatment goals that they are supported in working towards every day. Support comes from all staff; teachers, behavioral interventionists, clinicians and administration. All Academy staff are cross trained so that social, emotional and behavioral support is integrated into every class and interaction at the Academy. Family is also a big part of the support system at the school. Family events are held monthly to celebrate milestones and provide support and training necessary to support the kids. Parents have weekly contact with their child’s/child in their custody’s clinician (each student is assigned a Master’s level clinician) to insure everyone is in the loop about the weekly successes and stumbling blocks as they arise.
Ch.O.I.C.E.’s doors also stay open year round to support the kids (and families). Whether it is after school, during school breaks, or the summer, Ch.O.I.C.E. students are provided fun, therapeutic activities to engage in and give them an opportunity to continue to grow socially, emotionally and behaviorally. Ch.O.I.C.E. has a skiing and snowboard program in the winter and spring, a Magic the Gathering club after school, and takes trips around the state in the summer to name a few. One of the Academy’s major “extra-curricular” endeavors is a trip the last week of the school year creatively named the “End of the Year Trip”. This trip is not like any other school trip. Early in October, the high school students identify a location where they would like to travel and work with the Special Activities Coordinator to explore the viability of the fundraising necessary to make the trip they envision a reality. Then a fundraising plan is made and staff and students work the rest of the year to earn the funding and develop the skills necessary to participate in the trip. This past year, the Academy high school AND middle school participated in a four night, five day trip to Walt Disney World, Florida. Students and staff raised money not only to pay for meals and lodging and tickets to the park but also to insure all students had an equal base amount of spending money for souvenirs. The underlying therapeutic objective of this trip is to help the students recognize that they can work towards long-term goals and be successful, as many students have a very difficult time seeing the “big picture” when they make choices about their behavior and actions. This is a prime example of the thinking that goes into all the activities and offerings at the Academy.
Ch.O.I.C.E. is proud of its history at WCMHS and continues to look ahead for new opportunities to offer the best therapeutic and academic supports to students who attend the Academy. Some of the new initiatives for the upcoming year are a farm based school to work program, opening a school cafeteria, and planting a school garden. The kids would also like to go back to Disney. Ch.O.I.C.E. is looking forward to celebrating the 10th anniversary this summer and then moving into its second decade of great success here at WCMHS!
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