By Karen Billing
One local school is trying to help find a way for families who feel lost when one of their children is struggling.
The Arch Academy is a school that provides a place for recovery in a wrap-around setting for students with behavioral or emotional problems, learning disabilities and substance abuse issues. Arch emphasizes the values of honesty and gratitude, and expects students and families to commit to whatever it takes to ensure success and recovery.
The school, founded by Cheryl Zak, a licensed clinical social worker since 1991, and Art Aragon, a substance abuse and behavioral management counselor, is located in the Clairemont Mesa area and the bulk of the students come from North County. Half of tuition is paid by most of the attending students’ home school districts and students are required to stay for a minimum of one year.
“It’s a niche group of families and kids who want to turn their lives around and are willing to do the work. We’re not babysitters. It has to be wrap-around, where everyone’s involved in it,” Zak said. “The parents have always been a major source of recruiting other parents because they know what it’s like when their kid is running around at 2 a.m. because they’ve had a bad reaction to their medicine or punched a hole in the wall.”
By “wrap around,” Zak means that support is given inside and outside of school for both the students and their parents. When parents need help during after-school hours, Arch staff is available 24 hours a day, to provide advice over a phone call or even do a home visit.
“They helped me through it as a parent because I didn’t know what to do,” said one Del Mar mom. “They really know how to work with these kids.”
If a student has an episode or acts up at home, the Arch staff will know about it and there will be consequences at school, sometimes not just for them but for their entire group [of fellow students]. It puts a little more on the student to behave if he knows that his entire group will be held accountable and have privileges like playing Xboxes taken away.
“Students can’t have a great day at school and be horrible at home,” said Zak. “There’s no hiding.”
One student, Kelsey, said her bad behavior resulted in not being able to go on a family vacation and having most of her clothing taken away so she only had one or two outfits to wear.
The approach is a little like tough love, although Zak wouldn’t call it that.
“The disinformation out there is we’re like a boot camp, but you see the kids come up and hug me in the morning, it’s not like that,” Zak said. “There’s respect.”
Also, unlike a boot camp, when a visitor enters the room, each student stops what they’re doing to come up to the person and introduce themselves and shake the guest’s hand.
Kelsey, who said she had “many consequences” when she first arrived, is now a well-spoken teenager who happily and proudly leads a school tour for a guest.
In 1996, Zak and Aragon started what would become the origins of Arch Academy with “Rescu,” an after-school drug and alcohol counseling program. They soon discovered that a few hours after school didn’t give the students enough support.
“The kids were fine after school, but then they’d go to school where their friends were doing drugs,” Zak said. “We decided to make the day longer and figure out how to do academics, as well.”
Rescu became an a Western Association of Schools & Colleges (WASC) accredited school in 2004 and it became more than just students with substance abuse issues: The student body includes students along the autism and Asperger’s syndrome spectrum, children who have bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, depression, or children who have behavioral problems.
This year, the school has 28 kids, with three teachers working with the students in groups. The youngest student is 6 and the oldest student is 20.
“We have a diverse population on purpose,” Zak said. “We want the older students to help the younger students.”
Group becomes a place where they can talk through their issues without being embarrassed, student David said.
Zak combats “learned helplessness” by holding students accountable, and teaching them how to do things for themselves, as well as the lesson that the world will not stop for them. It’s important that they become their own advocate, Zak said.
One way that students self-advocate and self-examine is through a Presentation of Portfolio (POP) every six months.
David, 15, has been at Arch Academy for two years. At his POP he said that before coming to Arch he had a hard time with his family and friends, felt like his teachers were against him and struggled with his ADHD medications, which he felt made him angry and stifled his appetite to the point where he wouldn’t eat and dropped to 102 pounds.
Now he is in honors courses, scored a 1410 on his PSAT and is experiencing better interaction at home, where his parents and little brother used to be afraid of his outbursts. He’s found new hobbies—he loves music—and he has gained weight and hopes to get stronger and eventually run a sub-4 minute mile (an achievement that gets your name on a plaque at the school).
During his POP, David talked about what he had studied in classes and analyzed his learning styles and what he can do to improve — a level of self-reflection that sometimes adults don’t even do.
“I [didn’t used] to ask for help ever,” David said during his POP. “I’ve started to ask for more help from my peers, teachers and my dad.”
Students complete one course at a time, usually spending four to six weeks on each course with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 5. The school offers family and sibling support meetings, 12-step groups, parent support meetings every Saturday and life management seminars.
It can be a long day for students, beginning at 8 a.m. and sometimes lasting until after 7 p.m., working on projects.
“My son loves to stay after school,” said one mom. “All of the kids want to be by Cheryl [Zak]. She’s the light all the moths are attracted to.”
The Academy has a book club that coordinates with international trips taken by students during the summer. Fundraising is done for these trips throughout the year. For example, students read “Slaughterhouse-Five” and the works of Friedrich Nietzsche in preparation for a trip to Germany, and students are currently reading Dostoevsky in anticipation of a Russian trip next summer.
In cooking club, students learn not only about cooking but about budgeting — they are given limited funds to shop and cook for the entire school. This process also teaches them about being gracious; they are less inclined to turn up their noses at foods their fellow students have made when they know how much work goes into it.
As a reflection of Zak’s past as a swimmer, students participate in Polar Bear Club, swimming the La Jolla Cove, from 2 to 4 miles in the morning. Arch’s 6-year-old student swam the four miles this year with the entire group learning about how they can only be as strong as their weakest link — it may have taken a much longer time to complete, but every swimmer finished with the youngster.
“The group has to respect each other, they learn one kid is not more important than the group,” said Zak, who believes teachable moments can be found in most everything they do at the school.
To learn more about Arch Academy, visit
or call (619) 888-5131. The school is located at 9445 Farnham Street, suite 101, an Diego, CA, 92123.