Turn About Ranch Helps Struggling Teens Become Successful Students

By Hugh C. McBride

Like an eternally optimistic fan of an underachieving sports team, “wait ’til next year!” has become your mantra regarding your teen’s continued frustrations in school.

Next year, he’ll start applying himself.

Next year, she’ll get teachers who understand her better.

Next year, you won’t have all those arguments at home, get all those phone calls from the school, spend all those sleepless nights wondering when things are finally going to get better.

Well, next year is here – and it’s already looking a lot like every other one. The work remains undone, the behavior remains unacceptable, the potential remains unfulfilled. It’s starting to become painfully clear that the next year you’ve been waiting and hoping for is never going to get here.

Fortunately, waiting and hoping aren’t your only options.

Changing Behaviors, Improving Lives

On a historic working cattle ranch in Escalante, Utah, teenagers who once struggled to complete even the simplest tasks, and who routinely refused even the most modest requests from their parents and teachers, are waking up early, working hard all day, and going to bed with the pride of achievement and the motivation to accomplish even more tomorrow.

As its name indicates, Turn-About Ranch is a place where behaviors are changed and lives are improved.

Designed to help underachieving teens who have been exhibiting signs of rebellion, defiance and hostility, Turn-About Ranch provides students with the guidance they need to identify, address and overcome issues and behaviors that have been preventing them from achieving to their true potential.

From innovative therapeutic interventions to personalized educational opportunities to hands-on experience with the restorative powers of a hard day’s work, Turn-About Ranch challenges and inspires teens in an environment that emphasizes integrity, responsibility and personal accountability.

“We work hard at Turn-About Ranch, but we don’t use work as punishment,” said the program’s Executive Director, Luke Hatch. “Work is a reward; it’s something to be proud of. There’s value in being tired at the end of the day, and feeling proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

Effort & Accomplishment

At Turn-About Ranch, school, work and therapy are part of an innovative approach that helps teens accept responsibility for their choices.

“This program is based on making real changes,” Mr. Hatch said. “We want accountability from our students in every area of their lives. As we always say here, ‘If you can own it, you can change it.'”

On the therapeutic level, accountability takes the form of admitting personal responsibility for past problems and dedicating oneself to changing unhealthy attitudes and behavior patterns.

“If students say that the only reason they’re here is because their parents are mean, they’re not making any real progress,” Mr. Hatch said. “We work hard to help students develop the willingness to own their past behaviors and make the changes they need to make.”

In school and at work, these values are perhaps most evident in the effort to change students’ negative attitudes toward the concept of hard work.

“We tell students the goal of work isn’t just to get done, but to accomplish something that you’d be proud to put your name on,” Mr. Hatch said. “Whether they’re out in the field building a fence or working on a school assignment, we want them to be proud of what they accomplished.”

Catching Up, Working Ahead

Turn-About Ranch may not look like any school its students have ever seen before, but any thoughts that ranch life offers an escape from academics are quickly corrected.

With small class sizes, plenty of personalized attention and a steady stream of stimulating, hands-on educational experiences, Turn-About Ranch helps students with two important concerns: mastering subjects and earning credits.

“Academics are a big part of our program,” Mr. Hatch said. “Every student receives an academic plan, and students can earn a semester’s worth of credits if they work hard while they’re here.”

Educational opportunities at Turn-About Ranch include the following classes:

  • English: English 7-12, Literature, Creative Writing
  • Math: Basic Math, Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry
  • Science: Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry
  • Social Studies: U.S. History I & II, U.S. Government, World History I & II, World Geography, Economics, Psychology, Sociology
  • Physical Education: Credit earned by participating in the Horsemanship Program, completing organized hikes and playing team sports
  • Vocational Education: Auto Mechanics, Building Trades, Culinary Arts, Information Technology

To help ignite students’ interest in specific subjects, and to encourage them to become more actively engaged in their academic futures, Turn-About Ranch’s academic program emphasizes hands-on instruction, dynamic teaching techniques and unique learning opportunities. For example, students visit local sites of historical significance, study the geology, botany and biology of the area, and interact with members of the Escalante community.

“Learning doesn’t take place only in a classroom,” Mr. Hatch said. “And we do whatever we can to help the students make connections and get excited about learning again.”

Developing Skills for Long-Term Success

With a minimum enrollment period of 100 days, Turn-About Ranch is a relatively short-term program – but that doesn’t mean that students aren’t able to reap long-term benefits from their time on the ranch.

One of the ways that Turn-About Ranch increases the likelihood of continuing success is by featuring a family component. While students are working in class, completing therapy sessions and fulfilling ranch responsibilities, their parents are participating in phone consultations with members of the ranch’s therapeutic staff.

“The family unit is essential to our students’ success,” Mr. Hatch said. “We focus on trying to help family members make the changes that they need to make – both to support their child and to improve the way the whole family functions.”

With this objective in mind, Turn-About Ranch promotes personal responsibility, effective communication and conflict resolution.

“We emphasize empowerment, coping skills and improved interactions,” he said. “We prepare our students to return home, become more productive members of their families and be more successful in school.”

The results of this effort reveal themselves in myriad ways – in healthier families in which disagreements are settled with discussions, not confrontations; in formerly struggling students who now have the motivation to work and the self-confidence to ask for help when they need it; in young adults who have taken ownership of their past mistakes and are using the lessons they learned to plot successful and satisfying futures.

None of these goals can be achieved without a bit of help, yet neither can they be earned without accepting responsibility and becoming self-reliant.

This ultimate objective of Turn-About Ranch — this unity of independence, confidence and cooperation — is perhaps best expressed by a program graduate who was recalling his progress working on the ranch:

“I had to have help the first time, but now I can do it by myself.”