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Schools & Program Visits - Nov, 2001 Issue #87 

Fort Davis, Texas
Barry Blevins, Administrator

[Lon’s Visit on July 6, 2001]

High Frontier is about two hours away from El Paso in the Big Bend region of Texas. Founded in 1976, their model was then largely duplicated by its sister school Rancho Valmora in New Mexico (Woodbury Reports, December 2000, Issue #76), operated by the same owners.

When we arrived for our visit that night, our entrance onto the property was temporarily delayed by the scurry of a family of skunks. The mother and the four baby skunks were trying to get off the road and out of our way by hiding under the cowcatcher across the entrance.

Once the mother got her babies safely out of the way, we left this charming impromptu reception committee behind and proceeded to the spacious and comfortable guesthouse for the night.

The scene that greeted us in the morning indeed told us a lot about the remote and rugged beauty that surrounds the students each day.

Once we joined the students and staff later that morning, we saw more clearly why the center of the school is called the “Quad”. Many of the student’s physical activities take place in the square shaped area around which most of the dorms and buildings were arranged.

It is the area where the students spend their free time, usually as a group, when they want to be outside. The students in their groups, cut across the “Quad” when going from one activity to the next.

High Frontier is based on “Positive Peer Culture” as developed and explained by Harry H. Vorrath and Larry K. Brendtro in their book by the same name. This model is more developed than the common concept of “peer pressure” that is used in many other programs. “The central position…is that young people can develop self-worth, significance, dignity and responsibility only as they become committed to the positive values of helping and caring for others.” This is accomplished at High Frontier (as well as at Rancho Valmora) by organizing students into semi-autonomous groups of 8-9 same sex students. Each group has its own dorm, and group members participate in virtually all the activities and classes together as a group, with little contact between groups. In a sense, High Frontier consists of several small semi-independent programs that happen to reside side by side on one campus. One advantage is they get the personalized benefits of a very small program with individualized treatment and the ability to modify the program for the current needs of the group, while still having the advantages of scale in administrative functions.

Part of the positive peer culture process involves two kinds of groups, “formal” and “spontaneous” groups. Formal groups are a regularly scheduled session with a systematic four stage agenda designed to promote youth ownership of the helping process. The “spontaneous” group is designed to react to the “here and now” problems. Any staff member or resident may initiate an “informal” session at any reasonable time. Whether one is seeking support or identifying a problem with another, the process is designed for immediate help. A person can get a pretty good idea of how well a group is functioning simply by the number of times a “spontaneous” group is called during the day. When the residents are having an especially hard time functioning as a group, they seem to be having “spontaneous groups” almost all the time. While we were there, the functionality of the groups varied. The need to request a “spontaneous group” was evident from time to time in one or two of the dorms, while other dorms were functioning so well they looked and acted like a typical group of teenagers.

The program asserts that not only is this approach effective for most common psychiatric diagnoses, it is perhaps also the best way to assist teenagers with more difficult to treat diagnoses like Reactive Attachment Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. It is felt the keys elements of the Positive Peer Culture approach that makes it so effective is the use of small groups and its ability to adapt to the individual needs of each student.

The High Frontier’s Fine Arts program is an important part of its work; not only is it part of the school curriculum, it is also used in its clinical treatment. The Art room was spacious and well furnished. In their words: “The act of creativity is seen as a link to the subconscious mind in which we carry our true loves and fears, and our view of self as valuable or discardable….Art is taught for technical and esthetic excellence. Many issues arise, however, through the production of works of art which lead to opportunities for discussion and treatment when the child feels a need to express in painting or sculpture what he or she cannot express in words.”

High Frontier’s school, which only serves its residents, is a special education campus of the Fort Davis Independent School District. Academics are taught from 9AM to 4PM. Each student has an individual educational plan and works at his or her own pace. The school is competency based, so each student receives credit when competencies are met. This allows a student to make up credits if they are behind in credits when they arrive and they can advance when they are on track. There are ten certified special education teachers, a librarian and five instructional assistants in the school, which results in a student/teacher ratio of about four to one in the classroom. Teachers are trained in the Positive Peer Culture model and work closely with treatment staff, which allows for greater continuity.

Another important element in their treatment milieu is the emphasis on a variety of activities and sports. Students can be involved in music, horticulture, aerobics, bicycling, fishing, hiking, camping, swimming, rafting, and automotive mechanics. The fully equipped gymnasium is utilized for basketball, baseball and volleyball. High Frontier boasts of a quality arena, and all residents are encouraged to participate in both basic horsemanship and other rodeo activities like barrel racing, steer-riding and roping events.

High Frontier’s optimum size and current enrollment is 75 students, with a significant percentage of them being private pay. I could not tell the difference between the private pay and public funded students from their behavior and appearance on campus, so it seems High Frontier is effective at screening out those public funded students who make so many other programs unsafe simply by their presence and violent tendencies. Their tuition for private pay students is relatively low, given the type of students they work with, which would make this program a good choice for families with limited financial resources whose child has a fairly serious diagnosis.

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