CORAL REEF ACADEMY
Mike McKinney, Admissions
Visit on August 21-22, 2002
Coral Reef Academy is
a school for teenage boys that can only be understood in the context of its immersion in the Samoan culture. While other
schools in foreign countries market their program as providing their students with an foreign cultural experience, most have simply
produced an American school with an American culture that happened to be located in a foreign country. When attending
the Coral Reef Academy, the students are exposed to the Samoan culture starting with their first day on the island.
the first staff member who greets new students upon their arrival is Tao, the head counselor and native Samoan who has been with
the school almost since they first opened seven years ago. A leader of the numerous male Samoan staff, Tao expresses his philosophy
as treating the boys just like his children. As the father of 12 children, he is basically re-parenting these boys who often have
not had a positive relationship with their own fathers. Tao and the other Samoan male staff become strong male mentors in the
boy's lives, and many of the boys respond to that with an obvious hunger for a powerful adult male role model. Breda is
the School Administrator, and as a past college professor, she is also the head of academics. A strong, well-educated Samoan woman,
she, with the other female Samoan staff, provide a comparably powerful female adult role model for the students. Strong relationships
with Samoan men and women on staff is just one of the healing elements Coral Reef Academy has developed as they have evolved their program.
Therapy is under the supervision of Julie Elliott, a licensed therapist.
Another element that has evolved
is the program’s utilization of a Positive Peer Culture. At its inception, the Coral Reef Academy program was highly influenced
by Harry Varooth and Larry Brendtro's concept of Positive Peer Culture as a healing process, which is described
in their book by the same name. However, as the Samoan staff gained understanding of the program, gradually the program evolved
to reflect the Samoan culture. Now the school’s Positive Peer Culture reflects more the Samoan culture than the approach of Varooth
Samoan culture is family based. The basic administrative unit as we understand it is the village, which is a type of extended
family. The very gentle, caring and family oriented society in Samoa has no homelessness, unless a person wants to be homeless.
There can be a place for everyone, and the Samoans accept these American students as part of their family. Although the communal
aspects of Samoan culture might be a little jarring to our American sense of individualism, this kind of acceptance into a family seems
to be exactly what these boys need. In a sense, all these boys are victims of unbridled individualism in the US. Being immersed
in a native Positive Peer Culture enables them to balance their sense of unlimited choice with a Samoan sense of family
obligations, responsibilities and privileges. By learning the advantages of living within a family's bounds, they can learn the
advantages of personal discipline and self control.
The school has what we call a
level system, but with a unique Samoan flavor. Starting with Samoan village titles, each level reflects the Samoan symbolic concept
of the phases of growth on the journey through life. Of course, the titles fit nicely with the American conceptualization of the
levels a child progresses through while growing up, as well.
Each student starts with Orientation, which is basically to
help him acclimatize to the time changes, the culture, and the environment. Also during this time the staff can get to know the
student so they will be able to give the proper guidance each young man will need.
this phase the student reaches Level 1, called Tamaititi, which means child in the Samoan language. "This
represents a young individual who has limited life experience, needs guidance, appropriate role modeling and positive reinforcement."
It "symbolizes a wake-up call to start the process of making good choices," in the Samoan culture and is typical of “Level
I status” in various American level systems.
Level 2 is called Taule'ale'a,
which means "Untitled Young Man" in the Samoan language. Samoan society is led by titled men and women who have
earned the honor of representing their family. When a Samoan becomes an Untitled Young man or woman, it means he or she has accepted
the expectations, and is: "ready to serve and to learn more from listening, observing and implementing the protocols of honor,
integrity, trustworthiness; all the good virtues one must possess if one is to be rewarded with a chiefly title."
Levels 1 and 2 are very behavioral
in nature, focused on the here and now, and essentially are involved with rules, norms and values of the school, American society, and
to a certain extent, the Samoan culture. "The student's readiness to move on to subsequent levels will be directly related
to his ability to show understanding of our norms and values, and perhaps even more importantly, ability to live within their natural
Level 3 is called Tulafale,
which means "Orator" in the Samoan language, or, speaking chief. He is now titled "for his service, leadership,
role modeling and honorable behavior.... This symbolizes his license to speak as he has earned the right to speak and be heard."
This title is recognition that when he speaks, he has something constructive to say and thus should be listened to.
Level 4 is called Pulenu'u
in the Samoan language, which means "Village Mayor." By achieving this title, the young man is accepted as a
leader in the school community. It is by his decisions that the house is strong and the inhabitants happy, or his household will
crumble. He is expected to give back to the community that has supported him in his personal journey while at the school.
On the fourth level the students
participate in a non-supervised work activity. This provides them with real work experience as well as interaction with the Samoan
We were privileged to attend
a graduation ceremony for two of the boys. It was unique in that most of it consisted of native Samoan ceremonies. Early
on was the Ava Root ceremony, which is used in the Samoan culture as a part of all great and important occasions. This
was followed by native dances. Much of that was conducted in the Samoan language with the boys fully participating. All
the boys are required to study the Samoan language, and some become very proficient. Dance is an important means of self-expression
to Samoans, and the school encourages their students to dance both as a means of developing their ability to express their emotions,
as well as to better participate in the Samoan culture.
The school is on the north shore
of the island, about 12 miles away from the capital city of Apia. The Barrier Reef surrounding the Island is about
a half mile off shore, and the boys spend part of virtually every day in the ocean. Along the shore are ropes course implements
made out of local materials. The ropes course and the ocean are used everyday for physical exercise and the myriad of trust exercises.
Students are in academic classes
about five hours each day. Each boy has an individualized curriculum, and the school utilizes several distance education services,
including Keystone, Brigham Young University and the University of North Dakota. The selection of specific
courses depends on whether the primary goal is to help a student who is seriously behind in High School to obtain his diploma, or, if
appropriate, to provide more in depth college preparation courses. The school continues to focus on improving their academics and find
ways to integrate elements of an emotional growth curriculum into their academics.
Staffing is every Wednesday,
during which time the status of each student is discussed. The difference from most places I have visited is that each student
is present and takes part in the discussion about his status. As you might imagine, the dynamics of this approach to staffing
are considerably different from the norm elsewhere, and the ones I watched were conducted with respect and honesty and seemed to be
Parents are important to the
program and each student is in contact with his parents through e-mail, fax and phone on a weekly basis. Parents are urged to
visit the school half way through the program, which averages about one year, and to attend their son's graduation if at all possible.
The students looked good and
most of their words and actions conveyed that they considered their time in Samoa a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, along with the usual
expressions of appreciation for the help a school like this provides in teaching how to regain self control over ones’ self. The
one exception was a boy just turning 18 who thought someone should give him a ticket to go back home. However, he couldn't seem
to offer any personal effort towards that goal and in the dances at graduation, seemed to be having the time of his life despite his
hopes for returning to the mainland.
David Symth, co-owner, asserts
that Coral Reef can duplicate the impact usually associated with a wilderness program since the distance to Samoa and living in a different
culture provides the same kind of wake up call that is offered by wilderness programs, for similar reasons.
In my view, Coral
Reef is a very unique school, with a competent and dedicated staff. It can be a good choice for the young man who is making poor
and escalating negative decisions, and whose parents like the idea of providing an opportunity for him to experience a cultural exchange