Visit Reports
Visit Reports

Jul 2, 2004, 09:55

Valmora, New Mexico
David Braccialarghe – Administrator

Visit by Lon Woodbury: March 8, 2004

Rancho Valmora is making sweeping changes to upgrade their services. The most obvious is the 39,000 square foot education building that will house offices, classes, indoor sports and activities like basketball and plays.

The other major change, more subtle but probably more important, is the staff changes. David Braccialarghe is the relatively new head of the program, and seems to have aggressively taken charge. Also new as of January is the new Principal Bill Ward. With years of experience as a teacher and administrator, he sees this as an opportunity to put into effect all those ideas that he learned were effective, but very difficult to implement in mainstream education. I had a sense these two men were well grounded in practicality, while actively implementing their idealistic visions. The other major staff change is Chad Reznicek, who has been elevated to assistant administrator after several years of working at the Ranch as a therapist.

Rancho Valmora is its own community, with its own zip code, and situated about two hours north of Albuquerque. With about 1,000 acres, the Ranch is isolated, but offers plenty of room to roam with hikes and horseback riding and other outdoor activities. Valmora Ranch Company was founded in 1904, and the school will be celebrating its centennial this August. In the early years of the 20th century, it was nationally known as a leading tuberculosis sanatorium. Healing was its priority 100 years ago, and this tradition continues, but with wounds of the mind and spirit instead of the body in this latest incarnation.

A key aspect to the program is their development of a Positive Peer Culture as outlined by Harry Vorrath’s landmark book Positive Peer Culture and through consulting with Harry Vorrath himself. One of the main aspects of a Positive Peer Culture is the students themselves take much of the responsibility of working with their peers, while the staff facilitate to make sure things stay positive and constructive. There are about 60 students at the school, divided into single sex cottages of eight to nine students. Each cottage has group every weekday, called Formals, which usually last about 90 minutes. The students reach a consensus as to who needs the most support, with the student getting the nod starting by telling their story as to what might be bothering them at the time. The other students then provide feedback to that student. When that issue comes to some kind of resolution, the next student tells his/her story. The sessions are rather low key, and rarely become confrontational. The facilitator becomes active only when necessary. The students continue until the facilitator wraps up the session at the end of the allotted time, summarizing how the Formal went. I was invited by the students of one cottage to sit in a Formal, and it seemed to move along constructively, with the students being generally respectful, though pointed at times when appropriate. It was a cottage of boys, and some of them had had rough backgrounds, but by the way they conducted themselves, it was obvious they had at least learned some things about civilized behavior from the program, along with the ability to work on improving themselves and develop better relations.

Each cottage has very limited contact with other cottages, so each student’s personal experience is primarily in a program of only eight to nine students. Each cottage does almost everything as a group, which includes their own table and time during meals. Formals are always the same group, and activities are done as a group, which includes horseback riding, baseball, hikes, etc. The main exception occurs if a student is moved from one cottage to another that appears to be a better fit. Moreover, at times, such as in baseball games, one cottage might play against another cottage, or sometimes there might be some kind of mixer that allows students from two or more cottages to socialize with each other for a limited time. This of course depends on how the cottage is doing as a group, and if it seems like it would be a positive experience.

Under the leadership of Principal Bill Ward, academics are being strengthened and integrated into the therapeutic and general environment. This has been facilitated by a status change in their accreditation. As of last fall, the program has become their own school, still loosely associated with the local public school, but Rancho Valmora hires the teachers and has established their own comprehensive college preparatory curriculum. This gives them a much greater ability to hire teachers that have strengths working in their therapeutic milieu, and of course, a better ability to integrate them with the other elements of the program. In the past, teachers were sent to them by the local public school district, but no matter how good the assigned teachers were, it was always a weakness and frustration.

The program has always had a very strong arts program. The current art building’s walls are covered by paintings and sculptures from current and past students. They insist the art program is very important therapeutically, as well as a legitimate academic course. The art program will have their own space in the new education building, which will allow them to develop the arts program far beyond what they have been able to do in the past.

I liked the energy I felt in the campus and am optimistic that this program will continue to grow.

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