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Posted February 28, 2005

Arco, Idaho
Monte MacConnell Founder/ Director

Visit by: Cindy Barnett and Judi Bessette - February 1, 2005

(Cindy Barnett is based in Toronto, Canada and Judi Bessette in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both have started practices focusing on troubled teens. You can reach Cindy (Portolano Educational Consulting) at and Judi (Compass Educational Consulting) at

The tone was set for our visit to Wisdom Ranch School the morning we met John Tucker, Admissions Director, and Tom Harvey, Director of Students, at Pickles Café in Arco. We were the city girls in dress jeans surrounded by ranchers wearing work jeans and cowboy hats, eating chicken fried steak and eggs while discussing high school athletics and local politics. We stopped to collect mail for the ranch and its neighbors before setting out under an endless blue sky and wide-open spaces. We knew immediately this is a place where neighbors look out for one another and the future holds promise for those willing to work.

Wisdom Ranch School provides young men and their families with the opportunity to discover (or rediscover) their inner excellence. Upon meeting the three rugged founders of the school, Monte MacConnell, Tom and John, and experiencing their calm, deliberate nature, one quickly understands why the philosophy at Wisdom Ranch that relationships coupled with experiences help students identify their passions is so successful.

Wisdom Ranch is a working ranch located in the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains in southern Idaho. Everyone at the ranch adults and students alike plays a role in the ranch operations, led by the three founders who all look more like ranchers than therapists or teachers.

In addition to developing horse sense and all that entails, students have almost unlimited opportunities to develop expertise in areas like carpentry, auto mechanics, welding and metal working. While the staff teaches many of these skills, the ranch taps into the skills of local residents as the need arises, helping to make Wisdom Ranch a real part of the community.

The school is housed in a large yurt where students attend traditional classes in English, math, science and history. The yurt is also the hub of individualized learning opportunities and special projects identified by students. Author Dan Hays is the English teacher and school director, whose passion for learning appeared contagious among the boys who were in session. One young man we observed was conducting an independent research project on the work of Joseph Campbell, which will culminate in either a paper or a seminar for other students. The school can grant a high school diploma and, in some cases, offers course work that qualifies for college credits.

Yurts also serve as dormitories for most of the students. There are two family groups and two yurt sites. Up to 10 students and three staff live together, along with at least one cat and one dog. Each site has a large yurt that serves as a dorm and another that houses the kitchen and bathroom facilities. The yurts have wooden floors and wood-burning stoves that keep them toasty warm even on cold winter nights. These self-sufficient homes (each is complete with solar power panels and spring-fed water) create a living environment that contributes to the development of relationships with others.

Boys 15 and over (yes, 18+ are welcome) who want to be at Wisdom Ranch and who have average to above average intelligence are good candidates for enrollment. Typically, the boys who enroll are struggling at home, at school, and their lives lack focus. To be successful at Wisdom Ranch, a young man must be able to engage in relationships, respond to positive peer culture and enjoy hands-on opportunities. By design, this is a small school with a current maximum of 22 students and no immediate plans to grow the student body.

To ensure that nothing is missed in the admissions process, each student starts his experience in an adventure interview with several staff and an older student or two. This camping trip (which may include fishing, rock climbing or riding) assists the student in getting acquainted with the program as well as helping him to establish some personal goals he can take with him into the yurt community.

Without the distractions of TV, computer games and instant messaging, students are challenged to learn to use their generous amounts of free time to create positive experiences for themselves, a skill that will serve them throughout their lives. Other, more concrete life skills such as meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and money management help prepare the boys for independent living.

The highlight of our visit was meeting several students. Some of the boys were in town, doing their grocery shopping and a few were doing chores (including one boy who was working the newest horse), but the rest were in the school or doing independent work. The young men we talked to were charming in their own special ways. They were each excited about some aspect of the program ranch life, working with horses, learning new skills like welding and school (yes school!) Families share in this excitement by participating in experiential workshops and a special graduation program. There is a minimum six-month stay with an average stay of 10 12 months.

Developing ranch hands is not a goal of the program, although a couple of recent graduates discovered a passion for ranching and found work locally. Most grads go on to college or trade schools.

Wisdom Ranch left us with a very good feeling about the work that is taking place there. The founders should be pleased with the opportunities the ranch offers the young men and the families they serve.

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Copyright © 2005, 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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