By Karl Schaller
Several boarding schools for troubled teens, including some of Exceed’s clients, have permanently closed their doors this year. It is happening for reasons that may surprise you.
We seem to be the first to hear about it since our sister company, Best Choice Network, is sometimes called upon to help find a new program for the “programmatically-orphaned” boys and girls. These are teens and families who need to find another boarding school because the one they’re in is closing its doors. Suddenly the parents are scrambling for a new solution, and most are quite angry about the whole thing.
I think it is valuable to look at some of the reasons for these closures, which have not been for lack of students or leads! It may help your program to avoid the same demise.
1. MIXED DIRECTION/LEADERSHIP: At least three programs/schools that have closed this year were forced into that decision by a feud between the staff and the board of directors. These directors tend to be outside of the day-to-day operations and know nothing about today’s best practices. They tend to be much older and think of the program in terms of a pre-millennial model. That includes a more forceful, less communicative, approach to working with the students and their parents. These organizational leaders (not staff management) tend to think of the students’ parents as being much of the problem, and the students themselves as needing no voice in anything. They think that the staff are getting progressively too lenient and not strong enough with handling students and parents, or that parents don’t need to fit at all into the equation. They might even think of the program as being a glorified baby-sitting operation that owes the students and parent nothing more than that.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, the old model no longer works and most staff managers know this. It fails from a cultural standpoint, and also from a financial standpoint, because needed elements are not supported by upper management. Certain elements that programs and school could do in the 1900’s are no longer possible, and others are needed.
SOLUTION: The solution is for staff managers to work hard and consistently to keep top leadership informed of current best practices, current laws, current therapies, and current social trends and how those must fit into the program. It is also best to make sure that board of directors are seeded with younger individuals who are more in tune with today’s social trends, social media, and the angst of an ever-growing liberal community bent on shutting down all therapeutic programs for teenagers.
2. OPINION MATTERS: First and foremost, we must understand that the public today gets secondary verification of a school or program’s value from online reviews and opinions. You might say, “But we can provide great reviews and connect potential parents with all kinds of people who will say great things about us.” Unfortunately prospects don’t get that far. Reviews are a first step, and if they are not positive, mixed, or marginal, the parent will simply move on and never connect with the program or school. Note this — bad reviews that pop up can even can cause current student parents to pull their child while they are in your program.
Bad reviews come from kids who didn’t like the program — they didn’t want to be in a program in the first place and stuck to their guns for the entire time they were in it (usually kids who get kicked out in the first three months are the biggest negative reviews). Bad reviews also come from estranged parents who had no voice in the enrollment (but had to pay for it anyway). So often we see a parent who is divorced and has no custody striking out against a program because his or her “ex” placed their biological child in the program.
This happened with one of the most prolific therapeutic boarding school haters and activists, Angela Smith, who now leads Heal-Online. She was placed in a program by her mother, with no support or desire to do so by the divorced father. Angela says she was abused in the program in Utah, which has since shut down. Angela and her father (a prominent attorney in Seattle) now work against therapeutic programs of all types, and especially religious ones. They have a growing number of online activists helping them, and have made political strides to cause strict state and federal laws to be enacted. Fact is, if liberals ever again take control of the legislature, Ms. Smith’s agenda will be moved to front and center and likely be passed on a federal level. It was close to passing through committee just before conservatives took over under the guise of “child protection.”
SOLUTION: Stop thinking of your program as forcing the kids and forcing change, but instead, encouraging and mentoring it. Start understanding that millennial parents are more likely to ASK their child which program they wish to go to, not force them. If more stringent laws are passed in regard to blocking the ability to forcibly send and keep a teenager in a program, be ready for it. Make your program or school something that teenagers want to attend, and make sure they are happy with it throughout their stay. Yes, there is a way to effect change, and get kids to come to your program without forcing it. A number of our clients have made this change already, and the program is better for it.
3. OVER-OR-UNDER-CHARGING: Exceed has a good pulse on what programs can and cannot charge, according to the competition in the marketplace. Programs that charge inappropriately for provided services are just setting themselves up for failure. Charging too little used to be the most prominent problem, because that results in a downward spiral and an ineffective program if there are no other funding sources (donations, grants, state funding, etc.). Undercharging programs can never dig out of an under-priced hole and will eventually close down. We have seen this over and over throughout our history as a company. Today, however, we are seeing a number of programs and school thinking they can charge a premium rate, without having the associated premium services and features that coincide with that rate. While they can get away with that for a while, eventually the negative reviews are going to catch up with them. Parents who are wits end with their troubled teen are incredulous when they find that the program or school they chose is actually poorly equipped to handle their child. But they feel stuck, because they have already paid so much. They have nowhere else to go but to complain about the program and give it a bad name online. Either that, or they will pull the child early, and no one wins in that scenario, especially not the child. All in all, overcharging leads to eventual program failure and closure.
SOLUTION: Allow Exceed to help you make pricing decisions based on your program’s major features. It is one of the main tiers of marketing, and needs to be based on services, regional location, facility, competition, and other factors. You wouldn’t for instance, base the pricing of a house for sale on a whim. It must be based on what the market will bear, and it sometimes can be improved on with some improvements to the property. We help our client make good pricing decisions, first making sure that the program or school is full, then gradually increasing the rates to an optimum level as services and qualified staff are added or as the facility or reputation of the program is improved.
4. POOR STAFF SELECTION: A final reason for program or school failure and closure is due to the poor selection or training of staff or lack of procedures. I am talking about all staff, down to the groundskeeper. We have seen it again and again that one person can bring down the whole program, for sexual abuse, innuendo, or other inappropriate behavior around the kids. All it takes is one complaint to the state, and your program can be shut down. Even former staff members are known to complain to the state about the organization that fired them, claiming it was abusive to students.
SOLUTION: Have a strong training program and written policy that relates to conduct. Fire anyone immediately if they do not adhere to the policy. Get feedback from students and have an easy anonymous way for them to let management know that a problem exists. Be sure to follow your own intuition in hiring decisions and avoid potential problems, even if you really need to fill the position and the marginal candidate is your only option at present. Make sure that females feel comfortable around any prospective male employees and check their Facebook and other social media for any inappropriate sexual comments or photos. If a problem arises after hiring them, do NOT volunteer to send out a press release about it, nor give in to reporters who trying to get you to comment about the situation. DO NOT allow media on campus. Use a trained 3rd party spokesperson or attorney who understands the need to be honest about what happened, that it was against your written policies, what steps you had undertaken to screen the employee, and what steps were taken immediately to prevent it from ever happening again, including firing the individual and seeking their conviction. Once your personal name is associated online with commenting about a problem, you will never again be able to work with troubled kids.