Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Internet Special Education Resources
Special Education & Learning Disabilities Resources: A Nationwide Directory

Troubled Teens: Ready, Willing and Able to Learn

by Sidney F. Parham, Ph.D., VP for Academic Affairs at The Family Foundation School.

Is there a workable method to reaching at risk teens in a school setting and helping them pull themselves out of crisis? We think so. The Family Foundation School in Hancock, New York is a college prep boarding school with a difference. The student body consists of more than 220 troubled teens. They struggle with behavioral, emotional and developmental difficulties, including the full range of addictions. And they’re all helped in fundamentally the same way: with a program that combines rigorous academics, individual and group therapy, and the 12 Steps of recovery that originated with Alcoholics Anonymous.

With rigorous academics, the goal is to "maximize the academic potential" of students. Not just help them pass enough classes to earn a high school diploma, but to excel. All of our students struggle with emotional and behavioral difficulties, substance abuse, and destructive family relationships—problems that make high academic performance difficult if not impossible to achieve. And where some programs might relax their standards in hopes of helping students experience at least a modicum of academic success, we take the opposite approach and actually raise the bar. In fact, the passing grade at The Family Foundation School is 75%—ten points higher than the public schools. Of course, high standards only work if students are ready, willing and able to learn. To help them along, we keep our classes small and provide a full range of special education services, along with one-on-one, peer group and supplemental tutoring.

But the real key to the academic success of our students is our integrated program, which combines spiritual, therapeutic and character-building elements to prepare troubled teens for the challenges of the classroom. It is how we instill the hope, the self-esteem and the willingness to listen and persevere, which makes learning possible.

Our foundation, the 12 Steps of recovery, introduces students to living ethically with absolute honesty, unselfishness and love. In giving up their addictive substances and behaviors, they become able, and even eager, to focus again on academics.

Why the 12 Steps? The 12 Steps are unsurpassed in teaching responsibility, accountability, and how to live life on life's terms. The founders of The Family Foundation School, Tony and Betty Argiros, learned this first-hand, having recovered from their own alcohol and gambling addictions using the Steps. They believed the program could help anyone having trouble coping with the demands of life, especially teens who have always been prone to escape when faced with the pressures of growing up. Today their escape routes are endless: alcohol, drugs, sex, food, money, power, violence, abusive relationships. For many teens, what begins as an escape from the stresses of adolescence quickly becomes a pattern of destructive behavior with the same characteristics of alcohol addiction, which the 12 Steps were originally designed to treat.

If there's an anthem of 12-Step recovery it's the Serenity Prayer. This simple but powerful meditation from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr addresses the root causes of stress and offers a cure: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference." The school uses the prayer to teach students that stress is an inescapable part of life. It can’t be eliminated with substances or by "acting out," but it can be managed.

The 12 Steps are a unique stress management tool in that they show us how to stop obsessing and worrying over the causes of stress, and start doing something about them. They’re the blueprint for making better choices, and for changing the way we act and react to life—all of which can reduce stress. They also teach us how to accept and adapt to the unavoidable crises of life: death, divorce, accidents, illness. Using the 12 Steps, students of The Family Foundation School learn these valuable life lessons early on, working through the difficulties of adolescence to become healthy and responsible adults.

The program also promotes an easy, open rapport between students and teachers. Boundaries are looser and relationships are based on sharing and the give-and-take of equals rather than of experts and students. Faculty members possess not only the teaching credentials but, in many cases, the recovery history that uniquely qualifies them to teach at-risk teens, reaching and relating to them where others have failed.

The program also stresses performance outside the classroom—in sports, the arts, Scouting, even as part of a work crew. Students can participate in any of a dozen co-curricular activities, tapping undiscovered talents in writing, painting, singing, acting, debating, or special aptitudes in mathematics or science. In all of these pursuits, students learn teamwork and build the self-esteem that pays dividends back in the classroom.

Though almost every child in The Family Foundation School enters with little hope of graduating high school, every year the school graduates around 65 students through a rigorous, college-prep curriculum, not just with a high school diploma but with a firm base in a program for dealing with life.

Article submitted by: Sidney F. Parham, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs at The Family Foundation School. For more information, readers can contact him at

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Return to ISER Home