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This program is a true diamond in the rough.  We want to clarify both the diamond part and the rough part.  

See note at bottom of this page.

The principal partner (yes, there are silent partners who have invested and are not visible) is Ron Searle, a man who has had a thirty year career as an educator, most recently on the faculty at Arizona State University.   He is the guiding force behind the program and he energizes the spirit of the program.  Usually when a founding director has this kind of relationship to a program there is a kind of ego at work that can lead to problems.  But that does not apply here.  Ron has a vision that is unique and creative and is being implemented.  Still Ron is self effacing, eager to learn from others and highly respectful of the many people who have helped him to create this program’s initial success. 

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FamilyLightsm is an educational consulting firm specializing in work with families with a young person with behavioral, emotional or psychological difficulties.  We offer in-depth personal guidance to families on a fee basis and free guidance on the internet. FamilyLightsm attempts to be fully objective and accepts no advertising nor referral fees.

You can’t know the program without knowing Ron.  When the program first became operational about 16 months ago, he continued to be a full time teacher at ASU while living in Mesa, but being on property at Arivaca as much as possible.   He continued to live in Mesa and but spent many (perhaps most) nights at the program after resigning that position until he moved to the program. He has been living on the program site since January 2010, along with his wife and his children who are young enough to remain at home – two teenage sons.  (A full time program director living also lives on the program site, so there is leadership on-site even if one is away for whatever reason)

Ron may be nave when it comes to working with educational consultants and other referring professionals; he may be nave when it comes to certain business practices in our profession/ industry; he is clearly NOT nave when it comes to teenage boys.  Our consultant, Tom Croke says, “I’m not nave about teenage boys either, but I learned quite a lot from Ron during the hours I spent at this program and with Ron.”  In addition to understanding some things we don’t think are generally understood by the leaders of even some of the better programs, Ron seems to know what he does not know and is open about talking about his own learning curve and his self-perceived shortcomings.  Perhaps it is fitting to call Ron a diamond in the rough (just like his program), but a diamond in the rough who fast becoming the clear and brilliant diamond that will hopefully establish a new tradition among therapeutic and growth oriented programs.

It is a true diamond first and foremost because of the relationship basis of the program (key staff with staff, key staff with boys, and boys with boys).  We frankly are not aware of any other teen program with a more intense relationship basis, and there are clearly a number of programs that in the range we usually deal with that are outstanding in this regard.  This exceeds the best of them.  Intermountain  is comparable in care given that issue and the resulting intensity of relationships, but that is for a younger group and the methodology is totally different.  

However in both cases (Arivaca and  Intermountain) the first goal with each boy is keeping the him physically and emotionally safe rather than demanding behavioral conformity, as is true in most programs.   Think carefully about that.  Almost every teen program we are familiar with, including those we give high marks for relationship based interaction, puts a very high priority on conformity to behavioral expectations.  At Arivaca, if it isn’t tied to safety, in most instances the staff will follow Arbinger principles and let the boy deviate from the expectations.

This explains the beds that are unmade or made sloppily, for example. Boys will come on board in time.  Rebellion is no fun when there is no one to fight against.  We think the long established high quality mainstream programs should stop and take a look at this.  The payoff is a more rapid and complete buy-in by the boys than we have seen in more typically run programs.  We’ll say more about this farther down the page. 

Arivaca uses the methods of the Arbinger Institute and a unique approach to Equine work   as the two key elements of its change process. (Click here to go down the page to discussion of Equine, then return to this location We are ambivalent about Arbinger in a clinical situation with teens although we see its value as a growth program for basically well functioning adults. We were not impressed by what we saw on the Arbinger website or on written descriptions about Arbinger that Arivaca provided us.  But what we saw in place was a totally different dimension of relationships that appeared to be a consequence of Arbinger training. 

In response to the above paragraph, Kathy Cazier, Admission Director at Arivaca writes:  

"When I speak to people who have gone thru Arbinger, they all say the same thing: "You have to experience it to know it."  However, one thing you said in your article is true.  That Arbinger IS the underlying thing that makes everything work together.  It is that everyone sees that everyone has real value all the time,   So no matter what is going on, everyone knows they are being valued for who they really are.  No one has to understand them, or know them, or attach value to what they do, or how they do it, or who they "should be".  How else can you explain the true brotherly love you witnessed there?  When you're valued, then you begin to value others.  When you're loved, you love others.  That now becomes your reality.  And it doesn't matter after that whether they love you back.

"This is what Arbinger teaches.  One of the consequences of that is what you called loyalty. 

"That's my first impression of Arbinger."

Because the key staff people live and breathe Arbinger (and the “Wranglers” work at it – at Arivaca, the title  “wrangler” is applied to staff members who work with the boy at the front lines, known as “techs” or “child care workers”  in most programs ) the boys form a uniquely close bond with key staff.  Because the boys learn Arbinger, they relate to each other in a way that produces the hoped for peer interaction that is sought  and hopefully achieved in a Positive Peer Culture program.  Arivaca does not deliberately create the kind of structure that we usually think of that sets up a positive peer culture.  At Arivaca, the boys appear to create positive peer culture themselves as they apply Arbinger principles to their interactions with each other.     

It appears that the application of Arbinger principles by the key staff is consistent.    We suspect that manner of interaction among the key staff and between the adult staff and the boys, rather than the Arbinger training of the boys, is the real reason why the boys becoming so thoroughly loyal to the key staff.  The boys do apply the Arbinger skills intended to avoid conflict to their interactions with staff and with each other.   More about relationships and loyalty below.

Note from Tom Croke added August 12, 2102:  I have now read two Arbinger books,   Anatomy of Peace, and Leadership and Self-Deception.   Now I see why Arivaca gets the results that it gets.  This is very powerful material.   I encourage anyone who has ever been locked in a power struggle with another person, especially a teenager, to read at least Anatomy of Peace.

Arivaca Boys Ranch is also a true diamond because of the unique equine program.  At Arivaca, every boy who stays longer than three months trains a horse that has never been ridden or trained previously. (yes, they first learn riding skills with horses that are previously trained.   We are unaware of any other program that does this – We welcome correction if anyone else does.  (Most equine programs use teach the skills that would be used in this situation but with horses that are already experienced with would-be riders) 

Ron Searle is the leader/teacher in the equine program.  He is personally involved in teaching every boy in the program the horse training skill.  Ron is not a therapist, so we don’t call this therapy and they should not.  But as to effectiveness in teaching lessons of life, it appears to be at least as effective as any of the more sophisticated equine programs we have observed including those following EAGALA or NAHRA endorsed methods.   

This equine program is powerful both because of the eagerness of the boys to get involved in it and the lessons of life that are learned as they teach a horse the really has never been trained previously.  Students of EAGALA and NAHRA endorsed methods, methods we highly respect, only really get a simulation of this process.  Click here to go back up to paragraph that refers to two methods of change at Arivaca.

Tom says, “When I meet with students in a program, I consistently ask the students, ‘What are three things you would change about this program?’   I heard answers like I had never heard before in any program.   The three of the most common:  ‘Free up Ron from administrative duties so he can spend all of his time with us,’ ‘Allow us to stay longer and don’t make us go home so soon,’  and ‘Get Ron more money.’    Note that the third answer related to the fact that the boys trust Ron to spend any available resources on them.  (A fourth answer was ‘Don’t let the program get bigger,’ but it is growing).   I have never seen teenage boys – even teenage boys who were not previously severely oppositional – develop such intense loyalty and frankly affection for the adults to whom they are responsible.”   

When Loi Eberle commented on the program to us in an email, she said (quoted with permission):  The student residents are given a lot of room to choose to cooperate, which sometimes involves someone riding off into the sunset on their horse, and ultimately turning around and coming back.”  She expressed it better than I could.  The boys are not molded or forced to do much.  They are kept safe. Physically and emotionally safe. They are invited and encouraged to do things the program thinks will be good for them.  Some do not do so immediately, but after a time they all do.  The boys do not at any time feel coerced or put down.  When we describe the flexibility, it sounds like anarchy, but it anything but anarchy.  This is the most self regulated group of boys we have ever seen not just in a therapeutic environment but in any other places that boys congregate.  Ron Searle explains it by saying, “The boys begin to do the things we want them to do when to do so is really who they are.  We don’t encourage phony compliance.” 

We are aware of programs with comparable or equal peer based self regulation, but we are not aware of  better peer based self regulation.  Where we have seen comparable peer based self regulation,  we usually see a positive peer culture being set up deliberately by staff. At Arivaca there is no such structured approach to positive peer culture. It just happens.  The combination of the desire to please the key staff people and the Arbinger principles taught to the boys seems to give the tools to the boys and they simply make it happen. 

Tom says, “Frankly, if I had not seen this myself, I would not have believed it.  The loyalty of these boys to each other and to the program staff was far beyond what I would expect to see from a teen who is regarded as an outstanding student and citizen relating to parents, teachers, others in authority, and peers and not involved in a special needs program.”  We are not so nave as to believe that every boy is as intense in this loyalty as those who voiced their opinions to us, but to have even a few expressing themselves this way is phenomenal.  More to the point, the boys who were this intensely loyal are clearly the leaders in the peer group and the others accept their leadership.  Tom goes on to say, “These boys were functioning with a degree of loyalty and energy to please adult leaders that exceeds what I usually see among high functioning high school students living home and attending public school or private day school. This is accomplished without any form of behavioral coercion “

There is no real underground here in the usual sense, as we would expect to find in most therapeutic schools.  There is a kind of underground, as boys will behave a bit differently when not immediately in the presence of staff, but we are not talking about anything destructive.  Serious misbehavior is not tolerated at a peer level. (Click here to return to initial comments about positive relationships near top of page)

We said “diamond in the rough.”  This is not a perfect program.  It is a work in progress.  The diamond does need to be cut and polished.  We note the following areas for improvement.

One soft spot in that is that some of the “Wranglers” – staff who work with boys at the front lines, known as “techs” or “child care workers” in most program – are not equally skilled in Arbinger principles as key staff and in some cases not as well skilled as some of the boys.  The boys I spoke with appear to have figured that out and handle the situation well.  Apparently they get enough face time with the higher level Arbinger immersed staff to be able to sort out how they want things to  be and most use their energy positively. The more senior boys in the program tend to be able to use their Arbinger skills effectively to set the tone even when one of the wranglers gets out of protocol.

While boys will be able to progress with accumulating academic credits and might even catch up from being behind, this is not a high powered academic environment for students who should be getting a strong academic challenge.   Students with special academic needs will get learning support.  The academic area leaves room for improvement, a fact Ron Searle does not attempt to hide.   

We would not refer a boy with sexual identity issues or a boy for whom we had real concerns that might emerge.  We are not sure they have the sophistication to identify boys with issues or to guide the peer group to respond constructively.   Ron tells me he is aware that is an area that needs work at Arivaca.

We would like to see this or another program that has a similar relationship base also offer the clinical and educational sophistication that we see in some of the better programs that are well established.   But we never forget the great body of research that that says most of the them, quality relationships are far more important to positive outcome than clinical sophistication.  In almost every case we would prefer a setting with this kind of relationship base and lacking clinical sophistication over the clinically sophisticated setting that does not sustain quality interpersonal relationships.  It would be nice to get both at once.   But Arivaca is not for boys who need high powered technical clinical skills applied to their situation.

The physical plant is not only rustic, but rough-hewn.   To some extent this is deliberate and in keeping with the theme of the ranch. There is also room for improvement without disturbing the theme.   But parents expecting elegant will be disappointed.

We have a few additional comments.  With the emphasis on Arbinger principles and the equine program the question arises: Is there clinical therapy? The answer is yes; the program advises that it employs three full time licensed therapists and is in the process of expanding that number.  Boys get approximately the same level of interaction with the licensed therapists as is true in most programs that advertise one hour of individual therapy per week.   That is in addition to instruction on Arbinger skills and equine programming. 

It did not appear that any of the boys we spoke with directly had gone to Arivaca from wilderness.  However, Ron advises that they have had a few boys come from wilderness. He says those boys got into the program more quickly, but after a month in the program at Arivaca there was no observable difference between their progress and that of the boys who had come directly to Arivaca. Since this program can stand alone effectively in preparing boys to “buy into” treatment and personal growth, we do not recommend a wilderness program prior to Arivaca unless it is needed for assessment purposes,  prior to selecting a longer term program.  

We do not think this is a program for the clinically complex.  We are uncertain about boys on the autism/ Aspergers/ PDD spectrum, even if high functioning.  We did see one boy clearly on the spectrum who seemed to be doing very well in the program; we could not be certain how much he had gained from it.  We do not think this program is for boys with truly severe problems with substance abuse.   

We are not convinced that much would be accomplished on a three month stay; we invite comments from the program on that topic and from parents who have used Arivaca.  We give the same advice to parents contemplating a short stay at Arivaca that we give to parents thinking about a wilderness program:  Don’t waste your money on a short program unless you are economically and emotionally prepared to go the distance including a long term commitment to residential care, if indicated.  You might get lucky and have a boy ready for discharge long before the ten month usual length of stay has been reached, but we advise against any parent getting involved with a commitment to discharge in less than that.   

On the other hand, we find it difficult to believe that all of the boys who are successful at Arivaca, are ready to leave after exactly the same length of stay.  We would prefer to see more variability in length of stay.  We do believe that ten months is a very appropriate average length of stay.  Arivaca’s goal is to discharge a boy when his “way of being” (Arbinger term) becomes positive and is likely to remain so.

This is a very special place run by very special people.  Priced at under $60,000 for a ten month stay (including enrollment fee, with some scholarship help available) this is a bargain.   (Note cost reference is as of July, 2010.  You must check for price changes). 

Another plus:  This program will accept diabetic students including insulin dependent type 1 diabetics under most circumstances. Contact program for details on diabetic students.

Note, posted August 14, 2010:  We received a complaint from a client who went on Arivaca 's website and responded to their inquiry form.   This triggered very frequent emails to her, some of which she felt (and we agreed) were in bad taste.  She also was put off by the frequency of the email, a point we also agreed with.  When we contacted Arivaca about this, they were receptive to our concerns.  Understandably, they did not want to promise a specific remedy on the spot, but we believe we were taken seriously.  

We call specific attention to one piece that suggests Arivaca can take an out of control teen-age boy and turn the situation around in three months.  We do not believe any program can reliably  effect that kind of change in the boys Arivaca is trying to attract in a three month period of time.  (We do believe it is very realistic for those who stay with the program for ten months and whose parents work with the family expectations diligently during that time)  We especially call on Arivaca to withdraw that claim.  We are puzzled by promotional materials that seem to confuse Arivaca with a correctional facility. One would not get that impression observing the program in operation. One of the things we like about Arivaca is that it differs from a punitive spirit to a far greater extent than many other programs we have studied.

We believe that the character of Arivaca is very different from the impression given by those advertisements. We have encouraged Arivaca to find a different marketing group that better understands this business in general and better understands this program.  We have believed all along that Arivaca had made a poor choice with its web design and content.

As we stated in this review from the very beginning of when it was posted, Arivaca is a diamond in the rough.  Ron Searle understands  boys and has created a very special program.  He does not quite so naturally come by some of the nuances of the business he has entered. He turned his marketing over to a firm he trusted, understanding that serving kids is his strength and marketing his services is not.  We believe that firm has not served him well.  If this happened with school or program with highly sophisticated leadership, we would be far less tolerant and empathetic.  However, we are looking for Arivaca to take significant corrective action on this in the near future.  

We understand that the current marketing approach has brought business to Arivaca.  We suspect that parents wanting to punish their sons for acting out might find it attractive. We suspect it is a turn-off to many parents who would particularly appreciate what makes Arivaca special. 

If you want more information about Arivaca but do not want to be deluged with the material that we and our client found offensive, we suggest you telephone  877-886-9766, and speak to Kathy Cazier, Director of Admission.  Ask your questions, but ask that she not put you on the email list for the series of emails we describe.

We hope Arivaca will take corrective action very soon.  We strongly reaffirm our faith in the program itself. 

Official web site of Arivaca Boys Ranch

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Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.


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Last updated  8-14-2010; typo corrections without change of meaning 11-13-2010; note added 8-12-2012

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