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Landscapes, Summer 2007

Learning New Values in a Rural Setting

Bill McKay visits an art class

Photo by Jim Lincoln

Bill McKay visits an art class at Rancho Valmora

It is 9 a.m. at Rancho Valmora, a private school in northern New Mexico, and the clear blue sky is already promising another pleasant, but warm, mountain morning. Anxious to beat the heat, nine young horseback riders, just back from roping practice, are unsaddling and cooling their horses off.

These are not local cowboys, however. A year ago, most of these teenagers had never ridden a horse, let alone groomed one. But at Rancho Valmora, horsemanship and rodeo skills are a part of the curriculum.

“What’s kept me involved is seeing kids turn around and become first-rate citizens who support other people and their communities.”
– Bill McKay

At-Risk Teenagers From Across the Country

Located on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, an hour’s drive east of Santa Fe, Rancho Valmora is a nonprofit residential school and treatment center for at-risk adolescents, ages 12 to 18. The school and its sister facility, The High Frontier, situated near Fort Davis, Texas, serve young people who come from all over the country with educational, emotional and/or behavioral challenges.

During their average 15-month stay, the students will improve their grades, adopt new values and, in most cases, develop an altruistic, caring attitude toward others.

The schools are operated by Social Learning Environments, Inc., a nonprofit organization headquartered in Granbury, Texas, and directed by AgTexas Farm Credit Services (FCS) customer Bill McKay, a former Fort Worth automotive business owner. 

horseback riding

Photo courtesy of Social Learning Environments, Inc.

Horseback-riding at the High Frontier School near Fort Davis, Texas

McKay became involved as a donor and business advisor to The High Frontier in 1976, the year it was founded. When the administrator left a year later, McKay was asked by the board of directors to step in and help run the school. "At first, I was just protecting my investment. But I started spending time out there and fell in love with it," he says.

Positive Peer Culture

McKay successfully lobbied for state legislation favorable to private schools for adolescents and hired a new administrator. But more important, in 1978 he helped the school switch from a strict behavior modification model, which was not proving effective, to a social learning model, which establishes a positive peer culture.

"Our model is based on the idea that teens are more likely to listen to their peers than to adults, especially when they’ve had bad relationships with adults," McKay explains. "We don’t have a lot of rules. Instead, peer culture influences behavior. The students challenge negative behavior and support positive behavior."

Rancho Valmora School

Photo by Jim Lincoln

Rancho Valmora School in northern New Mexico

In the positive peer culture process, eight or nine same-gender students study, play and share a dormitory together. When an individual has a problem, spontaneous group meetings are called to help resolve it. Through this process, the students develop self-worth, dignity and a feeling of significance as they become committed to the positive values of helping and caring for others in the peer group.

Best Recovery Rate

"After just three years, we had the best rate of recovery of any program around," McKay says.
The High Frontier program proved so successful that a second school, Rancho Valmora, was opened in 1994. Later this year — with financing from Farm Credit — the organization will open a third school in Montana. All of the schools are located in rural settings to escape urban stimuli and negative peer structures.

"Our whole program is about value change — not just obtaining compliance," says McKay, himself a father and grandfather. "What’s kept me involved is seeing kids turn around and become first-rate citizens who support other people and their communities."

– Article by Janet Hunter
– Photos by Jim Lincoln and co
urtesy of Social Learning Environments, Inc.