August, 16 2018

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Teens find out 'What It Takes' at boarding school

In recent years, the thorny question of how best to rear children has been dominated by self-righteous harridans and guilt-inducing books.

Education reporter David Marcus' intelligent and well-researched book about a therapeutic boarding school in rural Massachusetts where he spent 14 months observing a group of TROUBLED TEENAGERS provides a stark contrast to popular know-it-alls who spout simplistic diatribes.

Instead, Marcus examines why some children and their families have to walk a far rockier road to adulthood than others. He examines the backgrounds and the psychological makeup of the adolescents and their families. Divorce and being adopted often are major factors: 60% of students who attend these schools come from divorced families, and 30% are adopted, Marcus says. Yet other TROUBLED TEENS come from picture-perfect families with siblings who appear to be thriving.

Kids also still need a lot of down time with their parents even if the pimpled ones complain. And in the end, parents must accept that some children are more difficult.

What It Takes offers some startling facts about the fast-growing field of therapeutic boarding schools. The school Marcus observed, the admired Academy at Swift River, is a for-profit venture, part of a privately held, California-based chain of boarding schools for TEENS with a history of problems that include sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol addictions and mental disorders such as depression and ADHD. Yearly tuition: $70,000. Clearly, the nation's TROUBLED TEENS spell cash. One teacher calculated the annual profit at 20%.

Marcus makes clear that most of the parents are not bad parents. But their TEENS push the limit of the phrase "out of control." Among the four students profiled who appear to have benefited from the school's tough but compassionate approach:

�Tyrone. Marcus shows the fiery love a New York mother, Natalie, has for her silent, lonely son, one of only three black students at the boarding school.

The Queens resident takes home about $35,000 a year from her job at the phone company. Her son eschews drugs, doesn't fool around with girls and is almost too compliant. But two years ago in the ninth grade, Tyrone simply stopped going to school. He would return home after Natalie left for work to sleep, watch TV and play video games. Sunk in a clinical depression, Tyrone agonizes over his parents' divorce and neglectful father.

�Mary Alice. At the opposite end of the economic spectrum pirouettes a 5-foot-10, 112-pound blond child of Dallas luxe. Her parents, one of whom is a stay-at-home mother who stopped practicing dermatology, are horrified by their 16-year-old daughter's diary. There appears to be no drug she has not taken, and her sex partners are vast in quantity if not quality.

�Damien. The only child of two New Jersey teachers, Damien struggled with ADHD and a secret fury at being adopted. On Ritalin (news - web sites) since 5, Damien has always felt lacking. Although many students take prescribed drugs, Marcus does not dwell on this.

�Bianca: From West Palm Beach, Fla., this former athletic achiever struggles with burdens to rival Job's. Her mother died after a grueling struggle with breast cancer when Bianca was 10. She also suffered several sexual traumas.

Being immersed in nature is part of the ethos at Academy at Swift River. It requires each group to camp as their initiation into the school and its rigid rules. Eventually, the successful students, including the four profiled above, live in a rural village in Costa Rica for five weeks.

Although some students blossom, others do not. Away from campus, one dies of a drug overdose. Another, a lively English boy, almost fatally ODs.

Although Marcus describes hours of guided group therapy that many adults might find horrifying, the students become more grounded and self-aware as they share secrets that shame them or discuss taboo topics.

At the end of Marcus' book, readers probably will agree with the author that these schools provide salvation for teenagers who are heading off the cliff.

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