Rancho Valmora, located in the middle of a remote area covering 1,000 acres of Northern New Mexico, was founded 11 years ago as a positive peer culture program for adjudicated youth. Frustrated with state agencies pulling students out of treatment prematurely, the founders decided to enter into the parent choice market; the last adjudicated youth completed treatment over four years ago. Today, the program is 100 percent private pay. Rancho Valmora is the sister school of High Frontier, located in Texas, and both programs are owned by Social Learning Environment, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Texas.
While visiting Rancho Valmora, I met with David Braccialarghe and Chad Reznicek, assistant administrator. Two-years-ago, David assumed the role of administrator after a 20 year career with the State's psychiatric hospital where he was responsible for the forensic unit and in charge of a 24-bed adolescent program for 17 years. Chad was a clinician at Rancho Valmora for two years before becoming the assistant director two years ago. Chad's primary role is to provide continued Positive Peer Culture training and supervise the group leaders, who are each in charge of a group of nine students. The clinical director is Chad's wife Johanna who provides the clinical oversight for the program and also works directly with each group leader.
Rancho Valmora operates the program through an integrated and pure Positive Peer Culture (PPC) model. They place an emphasis upon "pure," but this program visitation will not outline the Positive Peer Culture model because of the intricacies involved. However, the model is intended, with staff guidance, to place the full operation of the campus into the hands of the students. The students are supported through various approaches to exhibit genuine care for oneself and others. All group work is conducted by the students with a staff observer, and most program activities are initiated and requested by the students.
The staff group leaders are trained to facilitate the PPC and have the responsibility of keeping parents informed on a weekly basis and communicating with consultants as needed. Some group leaders are licensed clinicians and some are not. Those who are not licensed are supervised by the clinical director. The nine students function as a group throughout their stay at Rancho Valmora. With nine students in each group, they function as such throughout their stay at Rancho Valmora. There are nine dorms and each of the groups lives in its own dorm and attends classes in the manner of the old one room country schools. They also stay within their groups during recreational outings. Although the students' focus primarily upon their group, they occasionally interact with the other teams.
Rancho Valmora enrolls a wide range of students with varying disorders. Intellectually, the program looks for average to above average students because a student must be able to comprehend and understand the complex interpersonal issues discussed in the groups they attend. However, the program has enrolled some students with IQ's in the 80 range. Students with who are below grade level, and/ or have learning disabilities and attentional problems are provided individualized instruction by both teachers and peers. Rancho Valmora employs 13 full time teachers who provide individualized work for all students. The educational and related activities are numerous, including horticulture, art, life skill training and even rodeos.
I met with two different groups. The boy's group included boys who had been at Rancho Valmora for as little as two months and as long as a year. Each of the boys was friendly and walked up to shake my hand and tell me where he was from. With two exceptions, the boys were unanimous in their appreciation for the PPC approach. Some made it a point to tell me how PPC was based upon caring for one another and for oneself. Even those who were new to the program spoke openly about their struggles and showed respect for their peers. It was clear to me that these boys were invested in the program.
The girl's group was in an art class and I spent time looking at their creative work. The girls were invested in their artwork and appeared to be enjoying themselves as they quietly worked. All of the girls were productive and courteous to the teacher and to each other.
Later in the morning, I came across another group dealing with one of their peers. They were seemingly actively engaged with a boy who had walked away from the group during a group meeting. I overheard one of the boys talking with the student about how he is harming himself and others when he walks out of their group work. The model was alive and working everywhere I looked.
Rancho Valmora offers a large and attractive campus with a combination of old masonry buildings and new structures. The academic building is new and roughly 39,000 square feet. It was a strange feeling to walk out of the beautiful mountain setting, into a building that included a huge legal sized basketball court, with computer classrooms, art rooms, weight rooms and the academic classes. On the other side of the campus were horse corrals and barns. There were two very new dormitories as well.
Rancho Valmora is probably one of the very few, if not the only program in this industry that operates a pure PPC model. While they have done some research on their model with adjudicated kids, they are just beginning to gather data with their current population. This model has great promise and I look forward to the planned outcome studies.