Getting students back on the horse

Ivanhoe ranch is part of program to help students with intensive special needs build the confidence to return to their school site


IVANHOE – Coco and Pixie stand tethered to a post on the J-Bar Ranch near Ivanhoe. While the ponies and other horses at the ranch may look forward to meeting a new group of students who will brush them and perhaps offer them a treat, they will soon be playing a much more profound role in the lives of the young people approaching them. Most of students have little, if any, experience with horses.

Some are timid as they approach the ponies, but within minutes of the introduction – and with a little instruction from J-Bar staff members – students are leading them confidently around the arena.
The students visiting the J-Bar Ranch, which is an experiential learning center operated by Dr. Jan Loveless and her husband Sid, are from a new program created by the Tulare County Office of Education’s Special Services division. Known as the Alternative Achievement Program (AAP), the program is an extension of the division’s Behavioral Health Services.
The partnership between J-Bar Ranh and AAP is one of many components of the program designed to build students’ self-esteem and behavioral coping skills.

Each week this year, AAP students will visit J-Bar Ranch to learn more about the horses and to learn about their own abilities to care for themselves and other creatures. What began as an introduction to the horses and a brief walk around the arena will eventually lead to riding for most students.

The AAP is the third step on a continuum of behavioral health services provided by Special Services. When a student’s needs exceed the services provided in one of Special Services’ 18 countywide Intervention Resource Classrooms (IRC) and they require a higher level of care, AAP is considered. AAP serves students in grades 7-12 who are receiving special education services and would benefit from a site-based, highly structured, therapeutically-enriched educational program.

“Our vision for AAP is to provide students with an alternative learning environment that has mental health services embedded with their core academic curriculum,” said Tammy Bradford, assistant superintendent of Special Services. “Through extensive therapy and behavioral supports, we’re seeing students build the necessary skills to eventually transition back to their general education site.”

AAP began as a pilot program last year and moved to a school campus in southeast Visalia this fall. The program is led by Shane Farmer, a program specialist who had experience as an IRC facilitator. Meade Williams is the school’s mental health clinician, teacher, and program specialist. The program has nearly a one-to-one ratio of students and trained behavioral specialists.

“Therapy is provided throughout the day in group and individual settings,” said Mr. Farmer. “If a student is struggling behaviorally in class, one of the staff can immediately pull them out for a quick support session to help them reflect on their actions and what they could do better in the future.”

The new AAP site provides students with instructional and counseling classrooms, and space for outdoor activities, including gardening. The garden, which serves as both an extension of the school’s science classes and a therapeutic tool, was funded by grants from the Tulare County Office of Education Foundation and the Tulare County Farm Bureau.

AAP students begin each day with a half-hour “mindfulness” session. The student-led exercise, facilitated by Jason Quijada, a rehabilitation management specialist, may include elements of yoga, deep breathing, stretching, or an analysis of music or video art as a way to focus on feelings and thoughts.
Following the mindfulness session, AAP students participate in grade level curriculum for math, science, English Language Arts and a computer/electives course, which can include gardening. If needed, a credit recovery program is available.

Each month, AAP staff meet with representatives from the students’ districts to update them on their progress.

“Our goal is to help them develop the coping skills tools to sustain their success at AAP and hopefully back at their district school,” said Ms. Bradford.

“The initial success of AAP is due to its enthusiastic, caring and qualified staff,” said Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Jim Vidak. “Their dedication, coupled with the support of parents and district personnel, has translated into some early and amazing gains for the students they serve.”

At the conclusion of the day, students gather in the Honor Room for a closing circle. Each student is expected to answer these questions: Who deserves a compliment today and why?; What did you do well today?; and What is one goal you want to set for tomorrow?

“Regardless of any challenges we’ve had previously, we always come together in a circle to support one another and end the day on a positive note,” said Mr. Farmer. Like the garden that stands in front of the small school, students are growing socially and emotionally in remarkable ways within an environment of care, discipline and consistency.

Meade Williams, AAP’s mental health clinician, teacher, and program specialist, covers a science lesson related to the school’s garden. Submitted photo.

Meade Williams, AAP’s mental health clinician, teacher, and program specialist, covers a science lesson related to the school’s garden. Submitted photo.

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