Olympic Valley, California


Visit by: Lon Woodbury, September 25, 2014

Squaw Valley Academy is a small co-educational boarding school with about 70 students located in the middle of some of the most spectacular skiing, hiking, biking, and outdoor activities in the country. Located in the middle of the lake Tahoe recreational area, right next to the squaw Valley resort and a few miles from the lake, the school has incorporated all this outdoor potential into their curriculum.

The dorms, classrooms and administrative offices are located on approximately four acres, which are surrounded by a fire station and several other buildings relating to the functioning of a small community. This is the center of the academics and school community activities. The surrounding area is used as a major playground for their sports and recreational activities. Being surrounded by some of the best skiing in the world is a major motivation for students wanting to enroll here, and a major motivation for the students to do well so they don’t lose any privileges of access to these recreational activities.

The students seem to be doing well and looked every bit like normal high school students going about their daily activities from what I saw. The students and I had a chance to have lunch with were open and forward with how they wound up being at squaw Valley Academy and with some of their hopes and concerns for being successful in preparing for adult life.

The school is currently the middle of reevaluating how they want to work towards their mission. They insist their mission is the same as it always has been, but are rethinking ways about how to be more effective with students that they were unable to help in the past.

Founded in 1978, Squaw Valley Academy has always worked with students who would benefit from a college prep’s environment but needed something more than the student’s local school could provide. In looking back over the last 35 years, they realized that like most regular boarding schools, a significant number of their students had unidentified personal issues or diagnoses. These were issues and diagnoses that if they had been identified at the time, the student might have been sent to a residential treatment center or therapeutic boarding school instead.

They also recognized the school was successful with several of those students with unidentified issues or diagnoses because the school has always had a culture of working at developing strong relationships with the students, and the staff willing to go the extra mile when necessary, to help the students through their personal challenges. On the other hand, it was obvious that many of the students were not successful with in the past had more clinical intervention needs than the school was capable of providing.

A major key to them revising their mission plan is the hiring of Erica Theissen-House as the primary therapist. Erica has had extensive experience in working with therapeutic boarding schools and wilderness therapy programs. Her latest experience has been as clinical director at second nature Blue Ridge in the Carolinas and she is very well known throughout the network of professionals working with Struggling Teens. Along with the hiring of other clinical resources, it is hoped this will strengthen their ability to work with those students with both identified and unidentified personal issues and diagnoses.

Another element in the revising their mission plan is evaluating the changes that are happening with young people and their parents in recent years. All professionals working with children have recognized that things are quite different than just 10 years ago. Part of this is the digital revolution and how important digital gadgets have become to young people. Revising the structure of the school to take account of just this one significant change in youth culture requires rethinking most assumptions about student needs, clearer expressions of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and balancing consequences so as to be immediate and appropriate, rather than overreaction or under reaction or delayed reaction.

The staff is determined to complete this process by coming out of it more effective and more up to date in helping all their students overcome their personal challenges while at the same time preparing them for success in college. From my chance to talk with the staff and see how the students are doing, it seems to be coming together.