When school districts refer high school students with mental health disorders to Seneca Highlands IU 9, the prescription for wellness includes learning.
Through IU 9’s Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program, or AIOP, students get academic help to fill educational gaps and reach grade level in subjects where they’re falling behind – all while receiving intensive treatment for their psychological well-being.
The program has partnered with mental-health provider Dickinson Center, Inc., since the mid-2000s. Every year, 10 to 12 high school students from eight area districts are referred to AIOP, which operates from a Potter County government building in Coudersport.
While Dickinson Center staffers oversee group and individual therapy, students pursue individualized studies – designed according to academic assessments – with an IU 9 teacher. Students keep pace with current classwork, while they can also take online courses to recover missing credits.
As students achieve goals and adhere to strict behavioral expectations, they earn increasing privileges – for example, attending field trips, or listening to music during lunch – and ascend four levels representing academic and personal progress. At the top level, most gradually return to their home schools, while others go on to graduate directly from their home district’s high school.
Some AIOP students build work experience in community businesses, with support from IU9 job coaches and the Potter County Career Link. One student was an excellent artist who worked with a graphic designer, says Shelly Carson, IU 9’s director of special education. Others get jobs in local hospitals and restaurants.
From start to finish, students transform from kids who won’t engage with AOIP staff to confident young people who “start to believe that they can do things,” Carson says. IU 9 has added a Children's Intensive Outpatient Program for elementary students in Coudersport and is trying to replicate the success of both programs with a new Intensive Outpatient Program in Elk County.
Overall, school districts benefit from higher graduation rates and the return of students better prepared to cope with the academic and social challenges of high school.
“When they come back, they’re presenting as a student,” says Carson. “They’re ready to learn.”