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Coral Reef Academy is a truly unique school.  “Unique” is an over-used term but this school clearly is just that.  On the face of it, the program has services that are fairly standard for a therapeutic boarding school or a Residential Treatment Center or Facility.  But the experience of being immersed in the culture of Samoa while being part of a therapeutic community is totally different from the therapeutic boarding school or residential treatment center experience in the United States. 

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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.

For the basics of the program we refer you to their website.  We will put more emphasis on the intangibles that would sound insincere if included in their own promotional materials.   Because this is a longer review than most, we break it down into sections. 

Overview -- Who Should Use Coral Reef Academy

Samoan Culture

How Change Occurs at Coral Reef Academy

Student Response



Possible Disadvantages: Who Should Not Use Coral Reef Academy

Safety and Stability

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Coral Reef Academy is essentially a therapeutic boarding school but with greater intensity than we usually find in therapeutic boarding schools that are not Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs).  The greater intensity is not because of more clinical work, although that is comparable to the best of the therapeutic schools in USA.  It has  additional intensity due to the "mirror" provided by the different cultural setting and extraordinary impact of the Samoan mentors.

Like many other therapeutic schools, it is designed for young men who are not meeting society's expectations well but do not have extremes of psychiatric disorders.  It is especially effective with those who, in addition to whatever behaviors might be at issue, have low self esteem and/or tend to focus on self gratification without consideration for others. This can include severely oppositional and angry young men; it can also include "softer" young men who, for example, are not terribly disruptive but also do not do much that is productive. 

Because the age of majority in Samoa is 21, Samoa presents no legal barriers to housing people under 21 with people over 21.  Therefore Coral Reef Academy is one of the few special purpose schools or programs with a peer group that is centered right around age 18.   This is a perfect setting, so far as peer issues are concerned, for young men approaching their eighteenth birthday where it is important to avoid a discontinuity when that day comes.   It is also perfect for an eighteen or nineteen year old who lacks the maturity for a young adult program.*

The physical space of the program is a resort built for crowds anticipated at the 2006  Oceania Games.  Most of the buildings are small clean comfortable cabins, most of which are sleeping quarters for the boys. Some of the cabins are office space.  One larger building houses dining room and kitchen.   The property is fenced and gated with security people at the front gate.  At the groung of the property is an in-ground swimming pool. 

The food service is supervised by a very competent chef capable of serving in any of our finest restaurants.  We do not mean to imply that all food is gourmet style.  Much of it is basic but it is consistently good quality for what it is. Previously the food was strictly Samoan style and they do still introduce some of that for cultural awareness purposes. But it is food that American teens can appreciate and not complain about.  

Except that this program works best for older teens, ages 15-20 (our suggestion – not Coral Reef Academy policy) and is male only, it is hard to characterize the population it serves best.  You will see more about that as you read down.   In our opinion, this program offers traditional services that rank among the best of the domestic programs in the U.S.A., with the unequaled opportunity for a radically different culture to melt the defensive shells of the toughest boys, and still have a very gentle touch for the softer boys.

Before this school matured to its present excellence and crystallized identity, FamilyLight referred a significant number of students to Coral Reef Academy with very substantial success. This included both some very tough oppositional teens and some very soft kids.   The impact of the interaction between American boys and the Samoan culture  has been a powerful therapeutic intervention regardless of the sophistication of the more conventional aspects of the school.  In 2012, we have all of the cultural issues and, on top of that, a level of professionalism and clinical excellence that rivals the better therapeutic boarding schools and some of the RTCs in the United States. 

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Samoan Culture

What is it about the Samoan culture that makes it such a profound catalyst for change among Americans?   It is impossible to provide a fully meaningful answer to that without going to Samoa to experience the culture at least for a few days, then following the progress of some of the boys over the time they are in the program.   Even having had that experience, we are sure we don’t understand that nearly as well as the boys who have gone through the program.  So describing it is difficult.  But my attempt follows. 

First, the culture itself.  In the more traditional locations – which still dominate the Samoan countryside – the village is the basic unit of society.  This contrasts with America where the individual is the basic unit of society and the family is second.  In a traditional Samoan village, children might sleep in their parents’ home one night and in the home of another village couple then next night.  Family boundaries are fluid within the traditional village.  Samoan children living in a traditional village really are “raised by a village.” Children's  play might be less closely supervised than in America, but any adult in the village must be  strictly obeyed. 

In terms of material possessions, Samoans may be quite poor.  But they are rarely poor in spirit.  Necessities of life are naturally available.  Enough food to survive is growing on a nearby bush or tree or swimming in shallow water nearby.  

Traditional houses (“fales”) were platforms with a roof supported by columns with no side walls. (Only on our most recent visit did we see the majority of Samoan homes with actual walls; we don’t think we would have seen that so consistently if we had spent more time at a distance from Apia or on the outer islands) The simplest of fales can easily be constructed from materials available nearby in nature. 

Although western values are gradually changing this, we observed in the 1990s that Samoans had little sense of privacy especially children and more especially boys. However, any public displays of sexuality or open affection that are acceptable in the USA would meet with at least stern disapproval and perhaps arrest.  Samoan children would sometimes be open to interacting with palagi (American, European) adults in a playful, joking manner that would not be allowed with Samoan adults; Samoan children show respect to their Samoan elders at all times.

Loneliness is not an option.   People usually care for each other in a manner that in America would be highly unlikely except perhaps in nuclear families.  The boys in the program see caring in action. They see that happiness is not tied to material goods. 

This is a high context culture which rich with tradition and ritual and specific expectation of respect for the hierarchy of the village social structure.  This culture has powerful implications for the interaction of the staff of this program who are products of the Samoan culture. Especially the Samoan men approach the boys with a combination of warmth that is not typical of American men and an expectation of respect that American boys do not always show.  The boundaries created by the high context culture free up Samoan men to both demand respect and, at the same time, project a kind of warmth that could be misinterpreted in our culture but projects safety in the context of Samoa.   

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How change occurs at Coral Reef Academy

Our Guidelines point out the importance of relationships in any therapeutic setting and that the fact that the front line staff, not the therapists, spend the most time with the resident/ student and their relationships are the most important to the process of change.  Coral Reef Academy does the best with this factor in the process of change of any program we are aware of.  

In addition to the therapeutic staff that is American licensed and  highly experienced, the Samoans working in the program  are people of very high standing in their country and in their local communities and have been a very stable influence on the development of this program.   

Coral Reef Academy's website modestly reports therapy time but does not fully explain how the involvement between the boys and the Samoan men facilitates change as much as the formal therapy.   While we have great confidence in the quality of psychotherapy at Coral Reef Academy, other schools and program also have great therapists.   But other schools and programs do not have Coral Reef Academy's amazing mentoring program.         

The Samoan men who mentor these boys, due in part to their own cultural background, are as a group, the most effective we have seen in this regard in any school or program.   It is difficult to describe how these men, especially Tau accomplish what they do to a person who does not understand the Samoan culture.  The high context of the Samoan culture leads Samoan men to expect and indeed require a high level of respect from younger men.   With the precise boundary that creates, it permits the Samoan men to demonstrate a warmth in dealing with palagi (American) boys that is safe and reassuring. It also softens the toughest American kids.

One of the mentors, Tau Leuma stands out. Tau has been with Coral Reef Academy almost from the beginning.  We know of no other person of any level of education, of any nationality, of any other ethnic background with such great ability to connect with alienated American boys and young men.

Another example of a very special person is Famui Harry Carter, known as "Uncle Harry."  "Famui" is a title of honor for a Samoan Matai or village chief. The designation "Uncle Harry"  actually came from his family and his home village but it has stuck with the boys.  If you were to spend time with Uncle Harry, you would see why. He seems like everyone's favorite uncle.  He has held many different positions at Coral Reef Academy, but currently is "Culture Coordinator," part of the education department.   His job is to support cultural immersion.  This  includes  Samoan language, Samoan folk dancing (imagine your son involved in American folk dancing; but the Coral Reef Academy boys love the Samoan folk dancing), home stays, Samoan history and customs.  "Uncle Harry" has also been with Coral Reef Academy almost from the beginning.

More on these people in our "Staff" section, below. 

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Cultural Immersion

Unlike the early days at Coral Reef Academy, when the program was located on the beach in the midst of a traditional Samoan Village, it is now in a place where it can isolate itself from its immediate neighbors.  This gives the school control over when to be American or to immerse in Samoan culture.  

All of the boys learn the Samoan language and are taught local customs.  Samoan folk dancing is strongly encouraged.  Frequently the boys go off campus for athletic events where they mingle with local residents. These include sports such as Cricket and Rugby that are not generally available in this age group in the United States.  They also go to traditional villages, hosted by program staff for activities such as spear fishing. They also participate on traditional village ceremonies.  Putting these kinds of activities together with the constant exposure to the Samoan staff, gives all of the boys exposure to the cultural shift described in the section on the process of change at Coral Reef Academy

Coral Reef Academy's own website's section on "Why Samoa?" gives much deeper insight into the culture to which Coral Reef Academy exposes their students. 

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Student Response

The boys enjoy activities they would never get involved in back home.  This might be because it isn’t “cool” or it might be (like spear fishing, cricket, or rugby) something that can’t usually be done back home.   A group of the boys under "Uncle Harry's" guidance were really into Samoan folk dancing; when have we seen American teens into dancing other than "bump and grind" back home?  

Every boy in the program except new arrivals who had not yet adjusted to their surroundings, spoke to our consultant about how much more fun it was to do the things they do here as opposed to the things they did back home that got them into trouble.  That conversation happened while they were camping out in a traditional village, spear fishing, and cooking their catch on an open fire.   

A therapeutic program need not be painful.  The freedom to enjoy activities that are not "cool" back home can be a beautiful thing. 

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Education at Coral Reef Academy depends heavily on on-line courses but with twist.  While the coursework at Coral Reef Academy is primarily based upon the course offerings at Park City Independent, the faculty in place at Coral Reef Academy has a major role in teaching the material.   In addition, unlike most arrangements with between therapeutic schools and distance learning programs, Park City Independent permits the faculty at Coral Reef Academy to grade the work of the students.  The accreditation of the credits earned depends upon the accreditation of Park City Independent.

Parents and referral services should not confuse this approach with simply leaving students at the mercy of a computer connected to a distance learning service.  The education faculty at Coral Reef Academy takes as much responsibility or more for the educational process as teachers in a conventional school.   We should put the emphasis on "or more."   Coral Reef Academy works with each student to develop an individual educational program which meets the individual needs of that student.    We currently have a student at Coral Reef Academy (our referral, that is)  who has both hated school and not done well in school. He is a student with a slow processing issue that was not dealt with appropriately until the student arrived at Coral Reef Academy.   He is thriving in the  education program at Coral Reef Academy and seems to enjoy what he is doing.  

We call this "success assured education."  Failure is not an option. The school can adjust the pace and does so as needed.  The approach is fully individualized to meet student needs.  Teachers  teach. The do not just monitor students struggling with online programs and worksheets.   They grade the work. The do not just send completed work back to Park City Independent.   They assess student needs and progress and determine what is working and what is not and make adjustments as needed. They do not simply expect students to fit the system.   If a course is needed that Park City Independent does not offer, they may obtain that course from a different distance learning school (in that case the distance learning school does the grading). 

All Coral reef students take courses in Samoan language, culture and history, courses that do not generally lead to graduation credit.  But in these courses all students are working on the same things and classroom experience is included. 

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Coral Reef Academy is staffed by an outstanding team of American, Samoan, and New Zealander professionals and paraprofessionals -- with a few other nationalities mixed in.   The therapists are consistently people who maintain licenses in the USA.  We suspect they would also consider a person with licensing in New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, or Canada as well, but we have not heard that officially.  All staff must be competent for their positions by U.S. standards.   One therapist position is open and in the process of being filled. Qualifications and background information on most of these is available on the Coral Reef Academy website's "Team" page. We will not generally duplicate information found there. 

Some key staff people: 

(Notice:  These are staff members as of August 2012, and most staff postions have changed.   For up to date staff information see the Coral Reef Academy's website where it lists staff.

Rodney Rice is the reason why Coral Reef Academy exists.  This school was created by a group of adventuresome but somewhat naïve young men almost twenty years ago.  Rodney is the one who remains from that group.  Courage, adaptability, tenacity, and integrity are words that easily describe this man as he has matured into a very capable program owner (during the same period of time that FamilyLight matured from an upstart consulting firm to one that other consultants turn to regularly for guidance).  The period of time Mr. Rice has nurtured Coral Reef Academy has brought major challenges, the events of 9-11, and the economic collapse of 2008, to name just a few.  Mr. Rice's steady hand and wisdom in developing on-the-ground stable leadership he could trust, have brought Coral Reef Academy to where it is today.  Mr. Rice is based in the USA and travels

Trevor Allen, M.A.,  LPC.  Trevor is the clinical director at Coral Reef Academy.  He has relocated his family including small children to Samoa.  He is currently on a two year contract due for renewal in the summer of 2013, but at last report considering making Samoa a permanent home.

James Hyman, B.S., M.S,  therapist.  James is corrently our most frequent contact with Coral Reef Academy. We Skype weekly to monitor progress on a student there.  He arrived in time to take up slack created when the former clinical director moved back  to the states to attend to a family problem. He is licensed as a clinical counselor in the state of Montana. 

Breda Tipi-Faitua Alalatoa TPAS. MBA.  Breda is administratively in charge of the school in Mr. Rice's absence.  She is from a very prominent Samoan family and has been  with Coral Reef Academy almost from the beginning.   

Motoi Motoi  sports coordinator. Qualifications and short bio on Coral Reef Academy website's "Team" page but we have additional comment.  Motoi works closely with "Uncle Harry" Carter, in bringing the Coral Reef Academy young men into contact with the Samoan culture. Part of his job involves arranging athletic competitions with Samoan young men.  In doing so he brings a special perspective being Samoan but having lived many years in the United States.

Moana Jonas  heads the education program. She was educated in New Zealand where teachers receive a diploma as opposed to a university degree as would be true in  the USA.  We feel her skills and dedication are at the level of a master teacher with special education certification, but the New Zealand system does not provide similar appearing credentials.   Qualifications and short bio are on Coral Reef Academy website's "Team" page.

Vanya Taule’alo, Ph.D. Fine Arts Qualifications and short bio are on Coral Reef Academy website's "Team" page.  Although Dr. Taule'alo's is only part time on campus her impact is significant. She is a highly accomplished artist who is capable of bringing out the creativity consistently in these young men.  

Faumui Harry "Uncle Harry" Carter  Qualifications and short bio are on Coral Reef Academy website's "Team" page.

Filia Sua, RN  Qualifications and short bio are on Coral Reef Academy website's "Team" page.  Our consultant, Tom Croke, during his summer of 2011 trip to Coral Reef Academy cut his ankle on coral.  Filia's careful attention to this injury clearly demonstrated her skill and diligence. Positively amazing was the ease with which she reached a medical doctor to see if attention beyond her initial care might be needed and to obtain a prescription for an antibiotic. The health care of the young men of Coral Reef Academy is in excellent hands.

Tau Leuma is one of the mentors. With a brief interruption he has been with Coral Reef academy almost from the beginning.  Although Tau's formal education is limited, his natural ability to connect with young men and shape their lives can only be described in superlatives.  We at FamilyLight have not encountered a person at any level of education in any school of program with comparable ability to impact the lives of young men for the better.  He is a mentor's mentor.  His presence at Coral Reef Academy goes a great distance in defining the excellence of the school. 

Viliame "Willi" Nateru is one of our personal favorites.  Willi's primary function is to oversee the food service.  Willi is well trained as a gourmet chef, and applies that skill to food preparation at Coral Reef Academy.  We heard the story that when he first arrived at Coral Reef Academy, one of the first things he did was to throw away the MSG.  Regardless of the  controversies of the health implications of MSG, the best restaurants don't use it.  Willi wanted to apply that standard.  We don't claim that Coral Reef Academy serves only gourmet cuisine or that Willi personally prepares every meal.  But he does set the standard to ensure that the students consistently eat healthy food that they enjoy eating, along with an occasional special treat like only Willi can do.  Willi's other function is to take care of "Rice's house," the house of owner Rodney Rice which also serves as a guest house for visiting American referring professionals.   His job is to ensure that these visitors enjoy the comforts Americans are accustomed to and he does that with excellence. 

Donjoe "DJ" Bryce, officially Office Manager, is the person who simply takes care of what needs to be done.  A run to the airport or the pharmacy. Make sure the leak in the water pipe gets fixed. Every school or program needs someone like this.  We mention her because she is also informally a very important part of the connection between the students of Coral Reef Academy and the Samoan culture. The official "mentors" are all men quite appropriate for a boys' school.   Having a Samoan woman interacting as she does adds the motherly touch.  She is is a significant part of what makes Coral Reef Academy outstanding. 

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Possible Disadvantages: Who Should Not Use Coral Reef Academy

We think only the really obvious caveats apply here.  Like many therapeutic schools, Coral Reef Academy works well with young men who have not adjusted well to the expectations that go with their age.  This is not for people with a highly complex psychiatric disorders.  Here are some situations we think should get careful consideration and in some cases be avoided (these exclusions do not represent Coral Reef Academy policy):

Boys who are too young. This is not for thirteen year olds.  It would be an unusual fourteen year old who would be a perfect fit for Coral Reef. Some fifteen year olds might be too young.  

Young men who are too old.  The peer culture is normed around what might be typical of upper class high school boys (referring to grade, not social class), college freshmen and perhaps sophomores, and boys just out of high school in their first jobs or perhaps the age where parents think the boys should be looking for jobs but they aren't trying hard to find one.  Young adults who have been out on their own for a several years or have several years of college will probably not be similar to the peer culture. 

Young men with serious and complex medical problems.  The primary care level of medical attention at Coral Reef Academy seems better to us than what most boys in this age group experience in the United States.  But specialist care does not have the same breadth and tertiary care (subspecialty care) might require travel to Hawai'i.  Some specialist care might require travel to American Samoa, although that is not difficult.  Contact Coral Reef Academy Admission at (888) 707-3251 for specific information.

Young men with thought disorders

Young men with PDD/Autism disorders except perhaps very high functioning young men. 

Young men with a history of serious violence outside home.

Young men with some substance abuse and/or addiction issues.   Coral Reef Academy appears to attempt to function in a manner that is consistent with our guidelines on substance abuse and addiction and our guidelines on twelve step programming.  It has done excellent work with young men with drug and alcohol histories.   However, English speaking twelve step groups in Samoa are less prevalent than in the United States.   Therefore young men for whom twelve step recovery is of major importance might have less access to these resources then we might prefer.  Usually this is not a disqualifying factor for a young man for whom Coral Reef Academy is otherwise appropriate. 

Young men with active  eating disorders.

Young men from families where distance would seriously interfere with the therapeutic process.   Monthly visits from home are not practical at Coral Reef Academy although they might be practical for a person attending a comparable  school in the United States.  We mention this with caution as it is our experience that parents tend to overstate the importance of their son being close home. In many cases the distance can be an advantage in this age group. 

• We see a disadvantage in the fact that it is not customary for obvious reasons for young men completing the program at Coral Reef Academy to have two therapeutic home visits before returning home or moving into the relatively unstructured setting of college life.  We encourage Coral Reef Academy to give focused attention to the issue of transition. Possible actions include arranging with one or more programs in the United States to create program within a program for young men from Coral Reef Academy to stop for for 6 to twelve weeks for a gradual re-entry into the United States with opportunity for home visits to occur from that location.  

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Safety and Stability

Families are often cautious about schools outside of the USA.  This particular school is well established and operates in close communication with both the Samoan government and the United States Embassy in Samoa.  We encourage parents worried about safety to contact the embassy by telephone at (country code 685) 21436, 21631, 21452, or 22696, however we believe that safety in this program ranks with the best of programs in the USA.  The ranking official on site at this Embassy is the Chargé d’Affaires.  The U. S. Ambassador is also ambassador to New Zealand and is located in Wellington, New Zealand.  We understand from parents who have done this that the Chargé d’Affaires tends to be accessible by phone.  Coral Reef Academy is operated by an American company that is accountable to U.S. courts. 

Note that the present location of the program is on high ground, not vulnerable to tsunamis and storm surges.   (We use the word “present,” only because the program has relocated from a  beachfront site.  There are no plans we are aware of for a further relocation) 

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* Although the age of majority in Samoa is 21, the American Embassy discourages keeping American citizens over 18 in the program against their will. For details on this, contact Coral Reef Academy Admissions at  (888) 707-3251.  (Return to main text)


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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  8-29-2012; Links to Member Area added 12-15-2013; Adjustments to staff listings 2-20-2014

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