Nation’s Only Boarding School for Teen Obesity, Gem Academy, shares lessons on its third Anniversary

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We need to turn it from a “weight loss” to a “condition management” mindset.

In the shadow of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, the nation’s only long-term treatment program for adolescent obesity, located in Phoenix Arizona, celebrates its third anniversary of helping change lives. The landmark program was founded to meet the need for a comprehensive and effective treatment in the face of steadily increasing obesity rates for teens nationwide.

Gem Academy is a small boarding school with a high school curriculum that also encompasses immersive curricula in nutrition, culinary, activity, counseling, volunteerism and experiential learning. Gem Academy’s students are girls, grades 9-12 who are at least 50 pounds overweight and who may have co-occurring issues related to or stemming from their struggles with weight. “With 80% of overweight young women becoming adults who will continue to struggle with obesity, Gem represents a final point of intervention for most”, says Founder and Executive Director of Gem, Jim Hershey.

Hershey is an expert in the field and former clinical director of the only prior program to offer comparable treatment for both adolescent boys and girls, Academy of the Sierras, which was featured on Dateline NBC, Dr. Phil, and on the Style Network television program “Too Fat for 15.”

The focus in weight management has typically been diet and exercise; Hershey argues that is too narrow a scope and has not proven effective. “The dialog needs to change to educate people about the metabolic challenges they face when reducing weight and how large of factors sleep and stress regulation are. We need to turn it from a “weight loss” to a “condition management” mindset. As a single program we are not going to reach the over 6 million adolescences in the U.S. struggling with obesity, but if we can help change the dialog, we will have made an impact outside of the lives of our students.”

“We designed Gem Academy with expectations knowing we had solid science on our side in every aspect of obesity management, but this unique combination had never been done before. Exhaustive work in understanding what created the behaviors the students need to modify from a every angle from culture, evolutionary triggers to trauma. The outcomes have exceeded our expectations. But we also have had the privilege of working with amazing young women who didn’t know the strength they had inside of themselves.”

Over three years, Gem’s students have averaged between 1-1.5% lost per week. For an average Gem student that is between 2.6 and 4 pounds per week. The average loss over a students’ stay has been 38%. Where losing excess weight to move toward a healthy weight reduces impending health risks, it is not the sole goal of Gem Academy. “The goal we have for our student is long-term maintenance of a healthy weight. Everything we teach and practice is geared toward understanding how to manage the condition for the rest of their life because obesity is a disease that can be managed, but not cured.”

The therapeutic program at Gem Academy incorporates every major concept and technique demonstrated by research to be effective in treating excess weight in adolescents. These techniques, woven throughout individual and group sessions, as well as their daily schedule, help students develop the skills and behavior they need to master long-term weight control. Gem’s therapeutic program also taps into the latest research in the fields of skill acquisition, habit formation, motivation, perseverance, grit, delayed gratification, and mindfulness practices.

Students continue at Gem Academy until their condition has reached a point of remission at a heathy weight range determined by biometric testing. In most cases that has been approximately a year and students have come from across the country.

“There is not a more effective intervention than an immersive environment,” said Hershey. “Immersion in an educational and healthy culture allows Gem Academy students to gain the tools and, more importantly the knowledge of how their condition works to give them they greatest chance to control the same variables in their home environment.”

With the increased risk with obesity as a comorbidity with COVID-19 and the reduced effectiveness of vaccines on people who struggle with obesity, “we have entered a new realm of urgency in regard to learning to control the disease of obesity, especially for our young people.”

To learn more about Gem Academy visit or call (602) 402-5739.
Gem Academy is a solution-based treatment program for adolescent girls who struggle with obesity. The format is that of a boarding school with a curriculum inclusive of high school general studies, nutrition and culinary, fitness, therapy, community service and experiential learning.

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