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Posted: Apr 28, 2010 13:18


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Hurricane, UT
Fotu Soliai
Executive Director
Maurie Simmons
Admissions Director

Visit by Judith E. Bessette, EdD
March 18, 2010

Diamond Ranch Academy is located between St. George, UT and Zion National Park. To insure I didn't get lost once I made the turn onto a red, rutted road, Dan Borchardt from Admissions met me in Hurricane and I followed him to the property. The program is tucked between Gooseberry Mesa to the north and Little Creek Mesa to the south.

Founders Rob Dias and his wife Sherri dreamed for years about starting a boys ranch. Rob grew up in a family that generously opened their home to foster kids. Once Rob started teaching in southern Utah, he began volunteering at local programs serving troubled teens. In 1999, the dream became a reality when Rob and Sherry opened a small program near Boise, ID. The next year, he found the property in southern Utah and moved DRA to its present location.

I was greeted by three inquisitive brown, one black and one cream-colored...part of the small animal care program. I could see several neat rectangular buildings -- dorms, academic buildings and the cafeteria...and a decorative stone wall bisecting the area. The dorms are clean and comfortable, housing up to 4 students per room. Students are invited to decorate their bunk area with pictures from home.

Dan and I met with Fotu Soliai, Executive Director, Ephraim Hanks, Clinical Director and Maurie Simons, Admissions DIrector in the cozy Administration Building. We reviewed the basics -- DRA is a SEVIS approved RTC (residential treatment center) serving boys and girls 12 - 18 on four separate areas of the property that are both age and gender specific. 48 boys ages 12 - 15 live on the Stone Ridge Campus. Another 48 boys --16 to 17 -- live at Lava Falls. The comparable girls campuses are Crystal Springs and Whisper Creek. There are 25 girls on each campus. The stone wall mentioned earlier separates the boys and the girls.

Recently, DRA opened Sage Canyon, a fifth campus for students who turn 18 before they complete the 8 to 10 month program. Currently, Sage Canyon serves only DRA students...but that may change in the future. As of this writing, there are 3 girls and 8 boys.

Students come with a variety of problems including depression, anger issues, ADHD, impulsiveness, oppositional behavior, low self esteem, issues around adoption, divorce and grief/ loss, broken family relationships, communication difficulties, academic struggles and substance abuse. Using a cognitive behavioral therapeutic model (CBT) with an emphasis on choice and accountability, DRA has fine-tuned a token economy using a "sophisticated extrinsic reward system" that runs through every aspect of the program.

Every student has a job -- school. In addition to the clothing, bedding and the like that students typically get upon enrolling in any program, students here also receive a checkbook ledger to record the "wages" they receive for meeting their academic expectations. Students also receive wages for participation in therapy and for residential life.

To simulate the "real world", students must use their earnings to support themselves -- first for basics like rent. Only if they have "savings" can they buy snacks or pay for extra activities like the movies. There's a place for altruism -- students with large savings accounts can "sponsor" other students without savings enabling the latter students to enjoy an activity they cannot pay for out of their own funds.

Just as students meeting or surpassing expectations are rewarded, students falling short are issued citations. One can simply pay the citation or one can go to court. The court has several levels...just like the real world...or the Real Life Transition Program as it's known at DRA.

Students start at minimum wage and get raises based on achievement. The better the student is doing in academics, therapy and residential life -- the more likely they are to be able to apply for additional jobs that range from kitchen helper to serving as a judge on the peer court.

There are ongoing activities in the lives of the students at DRA that do not "cost" the student birthday celebrations or scheduled weekend outings. The Real Life Transitions Program is designed to offer students a normalizing experience while emphasizing personal accountability.

There is also a level system at DRA. Each level has a series of requirements with staff and peers collaborating on the decision to move each student up. New students start on "O & A" or Observation and Assessment. Student is the next level...followed by Supervisor, Manager, Director and, finally, Graduate. 75 % of DRA students successfully navigate each level.

Students who are not meeting the requirements to receive the salary minimum and have no savings wind up on "unemployment." When you are on unemployment, you get assigned tasks to complete while other students have free time. Tasks can be as simple as completing missing homework assignments or may involve an additional writing assignments regarding an inappropriate behavior or therapeutic lesson. Tasks may also include campus maintenance and beautification.

Students on any level can wind up back on O & A based on circumstances. DRA thinks of this as a opportunity to reflect then move forward. Once off O & A, a student returns to the level they left rather than needing to repeat levels. (Until recently, O & A was referred to as "being homeless." Since students were never truly "homeless", this inaccurate description is no longer used.)

There are ten members of the clinical team, each with a case load of 12 - 15. All are licensed as professional counselors, family therapists or social workers with areas of expertise including play therapy, equine therapy, sexual identity issues and reactivity, trauma and substance abuse. A therapy session can happen on the basketball court or during a walk or under a shade tree on campus. Bilingual staff can work with parents who speak only Spanish.

The academic program is accredited by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (NAAS) and the Utah State Office of Education. Using an individualized approach that helps students "own' their learning process, students are supported by certified teachers in traditional classroom settings. DRA can manage IEPs and offers special education assistance and support for mild to moderate learning disabilities. DRA can accommodate a few students with Asperger's but these students must be able to comprehend the token economy.

An appealing aspect of life parents and students alike is the school's commitment to sports and other extra-curricular activities like dance, speech and debate, music and drama. Remember the alpaca? Small animal care is a club offering. Clubs meet every weekday for 3-month blocks. Students get to choose their club activities. I had the pleasure of talking with several girls who had just completed the 4-H block and loved it. They were articulate as they described the service work 4-H involved.

Both boys and girls also have the opportunity to participate in competitive athletics including football, baseball and basketball. A sanctioned AA high school, DRA boys and girls take on other local schools -- and sometimes take the trophy! (Cheerleading is one of the club activities that supports the DRA teams.) I met several young athletes and was impressed with how they interacted with one another and with me, too.

The DRA motto -- healing families, one youth at a time -- speaks to the value they place on parents. DRA offers several parent seminars throughout the year to help parents understand their role in creating and sustaining long-term change in their son or daughter.

If you are looking for an RTC that serves a broad spectrum of issues but still feels very much like a traditional high school that offers normalizing sports and club experiences, take a look at Diamond Ranch.

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