Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Greatest High School on Earth

(Note: A version of this blog post appears on The Huffington Post's blog site as "How a Change in Schools Transformed My ADHD Son's Educational Path.")

This post has absolutely nothing to do with my older son and his addiction/recovery. But it has everything to do with my younger son and an amazing place that I now routinely refer to as "The Greatest High School on Earth." A place that has been a huge part of my family's overall recovery.

When my wife and I walked into the Leelanau School's academic building on March 21st to get our schedule for parent-teacher conferences, they handed us a pack of graduation announcements. My first thoughts were, "Graduation announcements? Are you kidding me??" I felt like I was dreaming. But I wasn't. This was really happening. And I got a bit choked up.

Our relationship with the Leelanau School, a strength-based experiential high school for boys and girls who simply learn differently--especially those with dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, and similar learning differences--began in August of 2012. It was the summer between our son's sophomore and junior years, and my wife and I were looking for an alternative learning environment for him.

Our son has ADHD and anxiety, and had spent 9th and 10th grade at our local public high school. While this high school is consistently rated as one of the best high schools in the United States, it was not a good fit for our child and his circumstances. Even with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place, school was pretty much a disaster for him. The school would give our son "accommodations"--extra time to take tests, the ability to turn homework in late, etc. But he was still being taught in mainstream classrooms, often times with 30 or more kids. He did not get the individualized attention he needed. As our son so eloquently put it one day, "What difference does it make if I get extra time to take tests if I don't know what I'm doing?"

My wife and I decided we did not want to send our son back to the same high school. We knew he was capable of performing so much better academically. Sure, the local school is known for high test scores and having students go on to prestigious colleges and universities. But if you aren't a "normal" learner, none of that matters. In fact, if you're not a normal learner you tend to get lost in the shuffle and--I hate to say it--kind of forgotten. Not only were our son's grades suffering, but the whole experience was making him more anxious. It was incredibly frustrating for all of us.

Enter the Leelanau School in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Just before our son's junior year was to begin, we arranged to visit the school and made the five-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in metro Detroit to the school's beautiful campus on Lake Michigan in Leelanau County. In addition to meeting with the director of admissions and the director of personal growth and development, we were given a tour of the campus by a super friendly alum.

We learned that the school's strengths lie in their dedicated faculty and small, supportive boarding school environment. Their mission? "To support the discovery of individual potential through academic, physical, and personal development of students who learn differently."

We also saw some cool things. Like dogs. Not just a couple of dogs. Lots of dogs. And not just dogs roaming around outside the school buildings, but dogs roaming around inside the school buildings. It turns out that lots of the school's faculty and administrators have dogs, and they are free to make themselves at home at the school. The therapeutic qualities of animals is something the school believes in.

They also believe in sustainability, which is why they have their own greenhouse and chickens, to grow produce and get eggs for use in cafeteria meals. Lastly--but certainly not least--the campus is astonishingly beautiful. I mean jaw-dropping beautiful. It sits on acres and acres of heavily wooded land with the Crystal River running right through the middle of it. It also has its own private Lake Michigan beach. Truly an idyllic setting snuggled up against the "Most Beautiful Place in America."

While we were driving back home after our visit, our son stated so eloquently: "I think this school could change my life."

And change his life it has.

Our son has gone from feeling "lost" in school to feeling welcome. From getting poor grades to getting excellent grades. And from not wanting to go to school to absolutely loving it. He has blossomed into an excellent student, developed lifelong friendships with fellow students from around the world, and done things he never would've done in public school, like performing in plays; playing music and singing in front of crowds; writing songs; performing slam poetry for his senior project; and even dying his hair blue at one point.

He has done these things because he feels comfortable in his environment; an environment where all the students like and support each other and where teachers and administrators give the individualized attention students like our son need. It's more like a large family than a school. The staff members recognize that kids have different learning styles and work extremely hard to maximize every students' potential. They don't just teach the kids; they help them grow and mature as individuals, develop life skills and independence, and prepare for the next chapter in their lives.

Speaking of that next chapter, our son found out a week or so ago that he was accepted to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I can't begin to tell you how proud my wife and I are of him. I can also honestly say that this never would've happened if it weren't for the Leelanau School. They've taken a once-struggling student with lots of potential, tapped into that potential, and shaped him into a "different" kid...all while letting him keep the unique qualities and personality traits that make him who he is.

So when I refer to the Leelanau School as "The Greatest High School on Earth," I absolutely mean it. The impact it has had on our son's life is immeasurable. Two years ago, I couldn't even imagine him being in the position he's in today. But whaddya know. It's really happening. And come June 7th, when I'm sitting in the audience watching my son and the 20 or so other members of the Leelanau School's Class of 2014 graduate, I guarantee that I will be crying like a baby. And the tears rolling down my cheeks will be filled with pride, joy, and undying gratitude.

One caveat: The Leelanau School is not cheap. In fact, it's quite expensive. They do, however, offer substantial financial aid to those families that need it. Even with that assistance, though, my wife and I still had to ask family members for help. Heck, we even asked friends and complete strangers for help via a GoFundMe campaign. That wasn't easy to do, and we kind of agonized over the decision before a "whatever it takes" mentality kicked in. We've also scrimped and saved quite a bit over the last two years to come up with the balance of the tuition and money to pay for extras like field trips, weekly allowances, etc. But looking back, every penny we saved and all the solicitations for donations we made were so worth it. The Leelanau School is the best educational experience we've ever had. My wife and I both wish we could go back to our high school years and spend them there.

If you want more information on the Leelanau School, I urge you to visit their website or give them a call at 231.334.5800 or 800.533.5262. If you'd like to make a donation to the school to help future students get the education they need, you can visit the school's online donation page. Note that the Leelanau school is a private, non-profit school, so all donations are fully tax-deductible.

UPDATE: My son graduated from the Leelanau School on June 7, 2014. He is now a freshman at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"We must meet our students exactly where they are with exactly the brains they have right now. We must use all the tools we have available to us and not expect them to fit into a mold or all behave exactly the same." --Dr. Gene R. Carter

Sunset at the Leelanau School on April 5, 2014. Looking out at Lake
Michigan and SleepingBear Point. (Photo Copyright © 2014 by
Robert Karner.Used with permission. All rights reserved.)


  1. I'm so happy that Josh, and your family, had such a great experience! All any parent wants for their children is their health and happiness. :) Congratulations to Josh on his upcoming graduation and acceptance to college!

  2. I wish you could have met my mother. You all would be soul mates! She has said almost the EXACT same words about my experience at Leelanau. Our family was in a very similar situation and being a student there completely changed the course of my life. It sent me off into the world with more confidence and support than I could have ever imagined

  3. I feel so grateful the Leelanau School does such a wonderful job. I've had the good fortune to go to summer camp nearby, share facilities, know staff, and work next door at The Homestead. I deal with many parents and am so grateful their children found their right place. We bought our home here from a Leelanau School family whose son had just graduated. It changed his life too Keep up the good work!