Summit Achievement’s program model is unique in that it combines the impactful adventure activities found in wilderness programs with a strong academic program and therapeutic community usually featured in therapeutic boarding schools. This hybrid design seamlessly integrates five key program components:
- Wilderness expeditions, conducted four days per week, expose and interrupt self-defeating behavior by fostering personal achievement, while building self-esteem and confidence;
- Academic classes, provided three days per week, utilize a blended learning approach, featuring a multidisciplinary and multi-sensory curriculum that puts the student at the center of learning and allows students to earn transferable credits;
- Residential community encourages students to practice new skills in a social setting, easing the transition from the wilderness to a setting more like home or private boarding school;
- Personal therapy, focused on individual treatment issues, includes weekly individual and group therapy sessions conducted by a masters level therapist, combined with daily group processing that is at the core of the Summit Achievement approach; and,
- Family inclusion in the total treatment process puts the focus on the student’s reintegration into the family unit. Parents are involved in the treatment planning process and participate in up to three face-to-face, in-person family therapy sessions, coupled with weekly family sessions facilitated by the primary therapist via telephone or video conference.
Students are grouped into “teams” of 8 students. The team shares a cabin on campus, living together, attending school together, participating in group sessions together and going on expedition together. Assigned to each student team are six direct care staff (referred to as “Guides”) who work in teams of three, each working one week on and one week off. The guides supervise students during all program activities, developing a therapeutic rapport, providing instruction in skills development, monitoring goal setting and individual growth, and providing a liaison with the clinical team.
Students progress through six program levels, each featuring a rich array of program activities designed to empower teens to take responsibility for their decisions, actions and emotions. During the first few levels the therapeutic focus is on recognizing self-defeating behavior patterns, increasing acceptance and engagement in the therapeutic process and helping students meet their own basic needs. As the teen progresses into the upper program levels, the focus gradually shifts to self-management and leadership development, with teaching skills to newer students, providing appropriate peer support, and practicing leadership skills playing an increasingly important part of the process.
With consistent effort, students can complete the program in six-weeks, one level per week. Each teen is unique, however, and the process of change is an individual one. A successful stay may extend to eight weeks or more depending on the needs of the student and the family.
Program Activities and Weekly Schedule
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday students remain in the residential milieu and attend school. On these days the daily routine is similar to that any student may experience at home or boarding school except for the integration of therapeutic services and the support and supervision by program Guides (direct care staff). Students wake-up at 6:00 am, exercise, get dressed, eat breakfast and complete morning chores. Academic classes begin at 9:00 and continue until lunch is served at 12:30 p.m. After lunch, classes resume until mid-afternoon. At 3:30 students have a snack and then engage in a variety of activities, either recreational or in preparation for the weekly expedition. After dinner and evening chores, students attend study hall for one hour and then participate in group counseling with their peers. Students then prepare for bed with lights-out at 10:00 p.m.
On Thursday all students depart on custom designed expedition. There are usually three teams of students, each departing for a different expedition designed to meet the emotional and physical needs of the students on that team. Thursday morning is devoted to final preparations and packing for expedition. Teams depart campus about 10:30 and the schedule for the remainder of the day is determined by the location and type of activities planned for each expedition (hiking, snowshoeing, canoeing, rock or ice climbing, solo experience, etc.).
Expeditions continue through Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with the team working together to reach their scheduled destination each night, making camp and preparing meals. On Sunday the teams return to campus between 12:00 – 2:00 pm, unpack and clean their equipment. The remainder of the afternoon is spent relaxing or in leisure activities. After dinner students have study hall followed by a group session with their peers. Students are in bed with lights out by 10:00 p.m.
Adventure experiences take students out of their comfort zone and familiar environments by immersing them in unfamiliar backcountry settings. Through a series of activities or tasks that are demanding physically, mentally and emotionally, students quickly learn that old ways of coping are ineffective when pitted against the challenges and consequences of nature. Behavior patterns are revealed and interrupted, presenting students with an opportunity to utilize their strengths for group problem solving. These efforts help students learn leadership, determination and perseverance, teamwork and cooperation. Through personal and group achievement, self-esteem and confidence are increased, belief in one’s own abilities is enhanced, and interpersonal skills strengthened.
Through the shared experiences on expedition, students build relationships with staff and fellow students. Working together to overcome obstacles builds trust and provides the emotional safety needed for students to feel comfortable sharing their story and their feelings. This emotional safety also creates an environment in which students are more open to hearing criticism and feedback about their behavior, choices or treatment of others.
Expeditions, conducted Thursday through Sunday, take into consideration therapeutic goals, physical abilities of the students, and weather conditions. During each weekly expedition students participate in different outdoor adventure activities that are season appropriate and include backcountry hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing, canoeing or swimming. Students on expedition also master a variety of outdoor living skills, including camp craft, navigational skills, and backcountry safety. In winter, heated shelters and cabins in and around the White Mountain National Forest offer protection from severe weather, allowing students to participate in meaningful and safe expeditions throughout the year.
Expeditions and adventure activities at Summit are not a survival ordeal. Summit Achievement understands that students who are cold, hungry, and miserable will not be able to process or benefit from the experience. Students are given the best clothing, gear and equipment available in order to make the experience as comfortable as possible, while retaining a reasonable level of challenge. The food, which is top notch for backcountry cooking, is nutritious and filling.
When not on expedition, students live in comfortable cabins while still functioning as a “team”. Each team of 8 – 9 students share a cabin, eating together, studying together, participating in group sessions together and engaging in leisure activities together. This residential milieu requires students to bring the skills and lessons learned in the backcountry into the social community on campus and practice those skills in a setting that more closely resembles home or boarding school. This reinforces skills development and mastery, increasing the transference of these skills to the student’s home or next educational setting.
Group process lies at the core of Summit Achievement’s therapeutic approach. Each evening students engage in guided group discussions to resolve issues related to group living and provide feedback to group members. These sessions are important because students will often hear feedback from peers that they have difficulty accepting from adults. We know that personality is formed and shaped largely through one’s contact and involvement with others; Summit believes it can be reshaped through this same intensive process.
Summit Achievement’s rolling admissions policy ensures that students within each group are at different phases of the program level system, with some students in their first weeks, others in the middle of the continuum, and others preparing to graduate from the program. This mixture of students at different progress levels empowers students to pass along skills, program expectations and knowledge in a perpetuating cycle of peer teaching and peer support.