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Posted August 26, 2003 

Ten Utah Site Visits
By Renee Goldberg, Ed.D., C.E.P and
Marvin Goldberg, MSW,
Options in Education
Somerville, MA 02143

[Visited on July 27-August 1, 2003]

We visited 10 programs during a very hot and dry week in Utah. The weather was the hottest in more than 50 years, and most of Utah was suffering through a five-year drought. For us, water, shade and air-conditioning were priorities, but we made it through the week reveling in the beauty of this rugged state. One could spend a month doing site visits to Utah residential treatment centers, schools, and wilderness programs and still not cover the available placements. Home to more than 40 programs for young people with emotional and/or behavior issues, we chose Utah programs to visit that are members of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP).

We began with a visit to Island View, a 115-bed coed RTC in Syracuse. Island View is housed in an airy, comfortable modern facility that has the feeling of a small boarding school campus. Gay Jackson the Director both of Admissions and of Nursing first spent time with us, then Janice Purnell, Marketing Director, took over for the tour of the facility, introducing us to students and other staff. Island View has a nice feel to it, with treatment and education being the centerpieces here. The students need to be high functioning to be academically successful. Therapy is conducted individually and in groups, utilizing the peer-to-peer model of treatment. Two students toured us and were quite candid about why they were at Island View, what assistance they were receiving, what they could change if given the opportunity, and what they wanted to achieve post-Island View. Parental involvement is a key treatment component at Island View and there are regular contacts between student, family, and therapist as well as family weekends.

Out next stop was Logan River Academy, an 82–bed RTC. We missed our turn and wound up at Utah State University, a beautiful campus just outside Logan. Though relatively new and housed in a converted bed and breakfast, Logan River is bustling with activity and optimism. The Academy is in a construction phase that will entirely change the complex and feel of the facility. Larry Carter, Executive Director, led us on a tour of the existing and new construction as well as provided some history about the ‘why’ of Logan River Academy. He and his colleagues sought to use a different approach than other programs by emphasizing treatment as well as education. Treatment is reality-based, utilizing cognitive and other treatment modalities. Craig Rodabough, Clinical Services/Admissions and Clinton Dorny, Admissions Coordinator met with us and directed us to meetings with staff and students.

Many programs are phasing out the behavior modification model used for many years. Though Logan River, like all programs, employs a type of level system, movement from one level to another is not dependent upon external rewards. Rather, students are helped to understand their behaviors and take personal responsibility for their actions. In our view, Logan River’s approach is on the right track.

Therapy is provided on an individual and group basis, and a student may graduate from Logan River and receive a high school diploma. The students we met at Logan River were also articulate. We asked them why they were there and how they got to Logan River. Three of the four students came with escorts, which they did not like initially but realized that it was necessary. One student said the worst thing about Logan River was that it was in Utah, not California! We all shared a laugh over his comment. Another student told us about NSS, a term she coined for “New Student Syndrome.” She had been at Logan River for several months and was a pretty sharp observer of human behavior. New Student Syndrome is the behavior exhibited by students new to a RTC:
“One call to my mom and I’m out of here”
“I’m going to fake my way through the program”
“I’m where? In Utah?”
She went on to note that the new students’ work was just beginning.

Our first day ended at Gateway Academy, a 12-bed male RTC located on a busy street in Salt Lake City. Of course we turned left on the ‘interesting’ Utah statewide grid system instead of right, but got back on track easily. Gateway is another newer program, established in 2002. Melissa Hickman, one of the founders, was our affable host. The treatment and education are the main components at Gateway, and provide an intense experience. It’s like living in a real version of the TV show, Real World. The students at Gateway are involved in many aspects of this real world, such as doing their own laundry, and under supervision, preparing some of the meals for the community. There is an emphasis on experiential learning at Gateway, as twice a month, students leave the grounds to explore Utah and take other trips as a group. When we visited, students were leaving the next day for a two-week camping trip. The away from the house trips however are not just recreational; students receive therapy and other assistance. Gateway was the smallest of the programs we visited. However, what it lacked in size and some amenities, Gateway offers a safe, comforting and therapeutic environment for boys needing maturity, awareness and treatment.

A Note: All the RTCs we visited severely limited the use of Internet, TV and video games. Dress codes were in place in all, some utilizing a uniform-type approach, such as program-issued polo shirts, tee shirts and khakis or jeans, and in others, a dress code that forbid gang colors, off-color phrases, gestures, and other clothing that did not emphasize a positive, healthy lifestyle.

On Tuesday, we visited Walkabout, a wilderness program in Lehi, south of Salt Lake City. Of course we missed our turn and needed a gentle nudge to redirect! Seasoned wilderness program veterans established Walkabout in 2001. It is a short-term, coed program lasting 5-7 weeks and emphasizes understanding and growth. Most of the students in this and other wilderness programs we visited usually go on to another setting such as an RTC or emotional growth school.

Though relatively new, Walkabout had the feel of a more established program. We were able to meet with the entire treatment staff who shared the program philosophy and treatment goals with us. Walkabout uses metaphor and myth as well as tools from more primitive cultures, which the students make. Treatment is given in the field by Ph.Ds, who we observed as well. Walkabout’s Admissions Director, Brad Mattheson, was our host. The sites are a long way from the office—a LONG way. We traveled at least an hour and traversed some extremely rocky trails. Once we left the highway, there were no roads.

Walkabout students are expected to carry their own loads, physically as well as psychologically. They are taught how to make a backpack from scratch and use it for the duration of their stay. We met with some female students on solo, a 1-3 day supervised solitary experience where students are asked to reflect, write in journals and address feelings about their lives. These teenagers were also forthcoming about why they were in the program: defiant behavior, substance abuse, family issues, and out-of-control behavior. They were contemplative and spoke with us quietly and respectfully.

We also had the opportunity to view student handiwork, as some backpacks were in very good shape, while others needed work or had broken. One student who was leaving soon told us she was going to give her well-constructed pack to another students whose pack had fallen apart. Renee learned over and said quietly: “I don’t think so.” Staff confirmed this! As we left the site, we saw one of the therapists climbing the mountain to reach a student for an individual session.

Wednesday we visited the Center for Change in Orem and Provo Canyon School in Provo. The Center for Change is an inpatient facility for teen girls and women suffering from eating disorders. The State of Utah currently licenses it as an acute care facility. This fall, a new 42 bed addition on the grounds will open to treat teenage girls. Michael Berrett, President and Clinical Director gave us a tour of the new construction. We attended part of a clinical team meeting and were able to meet many therapists, dietitians, and administrators. Ken Cousins, Admissions Director also led part of our tour.

Currently there is not an academic component, but in the new facility, students will attend classes as well as receive treatment. We met many staff during our visit and they emphasized that anorexia and bulimia are curable illnesses. People with anorexia and bulimia do not remain in ‘recovery’ for the rest of their lives, as some other programs emphasize. Rather, they are able to be cured and proceed with their lives; incorporating healthy lifestyles practicing moderation. The process may take a long time.

In addition to inpatient care, the Center has an extensive outpatient program, and through its foundation, has developed a curriculum for eating disorders that is being used in school districts throughout Utah and other states. We were able to review the curriculum, which seemed quite engaging. The Center for Change is an organization fully committed to treating eating disorders, and its new unit will offer students the full range of treatment and education.

For the afternoon, we visited Provo Canyon School, the oldest and largest RTC in Utah, established in 1971. It has two campuses, one for boys, with the girls’ campus a 5-minute ride away. Provo Canyon accepts many types of students. For some, Provo Canyon may be their last chance and Provo Canyon is able to work with students who have struggled in other settings and who may be resistant to treatment.

Steve Nielsen, Director of Admissions, coordinated our visit at Provo Canyon, where the emphasis is on education. We were able to spend an extended time with Nicholas Pakidko, Provo Canyon’s long-time Education Director who is a modest, soft-spoken person. He lights up when describing the program. Provo has 27 full-time teachers and offers more than 125 courses, also offering many professional development opportunities for staff. It pays for courses, so teachers and therapists are able to attain additional certifications and licenses.

Provo Canyon is able to follow the curricula of many states and employs 5 full-time out-of-district coordinators. Many of Provo Canyon’s students are behind in their academics. In order to catch up, Provo schedules three semesters within one academic year, similar to some of the other programs we visited. In this way, students do catch up and may even be ahead of their classmates at home when they leave. It really an important plus for the school as this works to enhance students psychologically as well as educationally. At Provo Canyon, education is key.

Students also venture off campus under the watchful eyes of well-trained and credentialed recreation therapy staff. The combination of educational and recreational opportunities and an investment by the school’s new owners to improve facilities point to a program that will go on for many more years providing services to troubled youth.

Visits to four Aspen programs Thursday and Friday concluded our tour. Aspen Ranch, an RTC in Loa, utilizes Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) as a unique tool to reach adolescents. The Ranch is a coed RTC located on a magnificent mountain plateau. We first observed the education part of the program, which was coordinated by Academic Director, Matt Alexander. Most of the staff at the Ranch, and for that matter, at most programs we visited, the staff perform more than one job. Matt has taught English, and has also tutored students individually. We observed a standard high school curriculum taught in creative ways. Many teachers utilize “doing” rather than simply reading and writing, and the arts are woven into many academic classes.

We then walked down to the barn and riding stable, where a group of 5 students were engaged in various activities, each student working on a different assignment. They finished grooming the horses and practiced assigned skills, such as turning. For example, a student who had been afraid of horses was working on fear of academics and social interaction. Vicky, the equine therapist, worked alongside other therapists. She was patient, but firm, encouraging students to move forward in their activities. When they succeeded at mastering a new assignment, their smiles were radiant and no words were needed.

Our visit at the Ranch concluded with lunch with the clinical director and therapists. At the end of our meal, the students entered. Each meal begins with a minute of silence, and the students told us how hard the minute was for many of them because doing nothing is difficult for fidgety teens. Some of the students said how much easier that minute had become!

Next we drove to Aspen Achievement Academy, which is housed on Main Street in Loa. The historic building is filled with staff and supplies. We spent some time with two field directors, Danny Frazier and Barry Livingston, who clearly love their work. They explained how the wilderness portion of Aspen Achievement works, with students mastering the wilderness as they began to master their fears and inappropriate behavior.

Norman Elizondo, the Education Director, then drove us by jeep in the rain to the site of a girl’s group where we were able to talk with the seven girls as while we huddled under a tarp. One student was to be picked up soon by her parents because she was going home. It was wonderful to see how happy the girls were for her, yet acknowledging that they would miss her. The group members at Aspen Achievement Academy have flexible entrances and exits, so the more experienced students take on the role of mentor to the newer ones.

We were also able to talk with therapists all of whom have chosen to work in the outdoors. Norman Elizondo started as a field worker and progressed to positions with other programs as well as Aspen. He wants to develop education curricula and programs that combine spiritual, physical and emotional well-being and balance. We were soaked when we returned to Loa, and had much to reflect on.

Because of the rain and lateness of the day after our visit to Aspen Achievement Academy, we simply spoke with staff from Passages To Recovery back at headquarters and continued our conversations with six Aspen professionals at dinner. Trilby Hoover, Admissions Director of PTR as well as several clinical personnel spent time with us, telling us about the program for 18 year-olds and older. PTR is designed for 35 days, but can be flexible about the length of stay. It is a recovery program set in the wilderness that integrates a 12-step model with traditional therapy and wilderness activities such as backpacking and individual vision quests. Spirituality is also a part of PTR.

All of the programs we visited build after-care into what they do. Some programs end with family workshops, others help clients transition to other programs or resources in their home communities.

Sunhawk Academy, an RTC in St. George, was the last stop on the southern Utah tour. Staci Bradley, Admissions Director, arranged our time there. We first met with Jade Brinkhurst, the clinical director, and discussed how Sunhawk Academy is able to integrate traditional psychotherapy with academics and work experiences. Because it is based right in the town of St. George, paid and volunteer internships are arranged when students are ready, leading to career exploration, which offers students a chance to be part of a community.

Meggin, the Education Director, explained the academic program at length to us, and arranged for us to meet with students. They both told us that Sunhawk did not let them get away with behaviors that had fooled others in the past. They felt students had to work hard but the program was worth it, unlike previous programs they had attended.

By week’s end we had visited 10 programs; we started early and ended late each day. We were overwhelmed by the natural beauty of Utah and impressed by all we saw. We look forward to our next trip to Utah. It’s not California, to quote one of the students, but we thought it was really great.

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