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New Perspectives - Nov, 2000 Issue #75 

Sunrise Leadership Academy
Logan, Utah

Submitted by Joseph P. Dobson,
Educational Consultant 215-242-3587

I visited Sunrise Leadership Academy in August of this year, before any students had arrived and before all staff had been hired. However, the philosophy of the program, the combined experience of the leadership people, and the commitment to continued research and the sharing of their results, all gave promise of an extremely worthwhile therapeutic and educational program.

A student's complete stay at SLA will run, staff say, anywhere from 12 to 18 months, beginning with an eight or ten week wilderness component. SLA can provide shorter wilderness experiences of four to six weeks for clients who only wish to use this portion of the program. Their plans include an academic component that is still being developed.

The wilderness program shares many elements of similar programs such as fire-making, Paiute deadfall traps and Native American crafts. However, a different and compelling philosophy underlies their implementation. The commonplace approach in most wilderness therapeutic experiences is to expose negative patterns of behavior and then, through a combination of confrontation and guided efforts toward reflection, create a desire to change those patterns. This traditional approach is based on breaking down defenses and pushing past denial.

In contrast to this traditional approach, SLA aspires to be entirely non-confrontational. All staff efforts are directed towards creating relationships, and in that context, inviting learning. The learning in this case is very concrete and task- focused, ranging from simple tasks such as making a sheath for a knife, to complex tasks such as building a boat. Whatever metaphors the kids are able to apply to their own lives are allowed to emerge, but this process is not announced as the purpose of the activity.

SLA's approach is based on the theory that antisocial behavior is entirely about creating defenses against flawed of dysfunctional or dangerous contexts. SLA attempts to create a new context of comfortable relationships and to invite learning within that context, thus allowing, rather than coercing defenses to disappear.

A unique aspect of SLA's operation is the presence of an ongoing baseline of professional oversight and research about the success of their approach. Dr. Frank White, of Utah State University's Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, is a full-time consultant to SLA. He oversees the whole scope and sequence of the experiential education curriculum. Dr. Rich West, Executive Director of the Center for the School of the Future, which also based at USU, is on Sunrise Leadership Academy's board. The Center's mission is to seek out, research, and promulgate the best possible practices in education, both nationally and worldwide. This important university affiliation allows SLA to have access to ongoing consultation and advice as they develop their program. Specifically and immediately, the Center is helping SLA to set up very sophisticated video conferencing technology to help with the program's continuous parent involvement with the emotional growth curriculum.

As of October SLA is experiencing some inevitable growing pains. They are still working on their state licensure as a RTC. Ultimately they will also be a state-licensed school. In the meantime the academic program is being run through the local school district, with the SLA students actually attending classes at district schools. While the primary founding partners are still there and fully confident of the program's ultimate success, two of the original partners have left. There are also some problems, as yet unresolved, about the beautiful historic ranch site that SLA had intended to use for the family-based residential program. They do, however, have kids in the field, and that part of the program is fully functional. Most importantly, the basic philosophy, so unique and so full of promise, is intact. I remain as interested and excited by the potential of this program as I was when I visited in August, and I will not hesitate to consider it for my clients.

Copyright 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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