Jordan Silver held the reins confidently as he rode Fuchsia, an Arabian horse, in a fenced pen on a ridge high above Emmett’s Black Canyon Dam.
Watching the 16-year-old maneuver the horse, you would think he grew up in the West. He actually came from Manhattan.
“I enjoy it a lot,” Silver said, referring to the weekly riding sessions for students of the fledgling Novitas Academy, a private therapeutic boarding school for teenage boys with emotional or behavioral problems.
The high-end school opened 15 months ago on a 30-acre property along the banks of the Payette River northeast of Emmett. It seeks to provide a nurturing learning environment that allows students ages 14 to 18 to successfully transition into early adulthood.
It tries to accomplish that by inspiring students to believe in themselves and to think creatively in pursuing their interests and passions. The school uses a collaborative approach to solving problems, forcing the students to interact with each other and to think situations through.
“We’re trying to help these boys become as productive and successful as possible,” said Andy Sapp, a clinical psychologist and the school’s founder.
NEW SCHOOL BUILDS ON EXISTING ONE
The school is owned by Sapp; Chris McRoberts, a clinical psychologist on the school staff; and Bernie Zimmerman, a licensed counselor who works at Cherry Gulch Boys Ranch, an affiliated boarding school for middle school boys.
Many of the students suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which makes it difficult for them to stay focused and control their behavior. They can also be hyperactive. Others experience anxiety, depression and a sense of entitlement because of their families’ economic status, he said.
Sapp himself suffered from mild dyslexia, a learning disorder — what Sapp calls a “learning difference” — characterized by difficulty reading caused by problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. He said he also had trouble with writing and math as a child.
“These differences may have been an advantage, because they made me work harder” and fostered a passion to help others, Sapp said.
Sapp, 41, founded Cherry Gulch 10 years ago. It is several miles northeast of the Novitas Academy on the 220-acre ranch where Silver rode the horse. The ranch started with a double-wide mobile home and later expanded with two residential lodges and classroom space, a gymnasium and activities center, along with a yurt for students to relax.
Cherry Gulch serves 47 students ages 10 to 14. Sapp hopes that as Novitas Academy, which now has 10 students, becomes more fully established, it will serve a similar number.
COST TOPS $100,000 A YEAR
Students at both schools live there year-round. They come from across the country. There are high school students from Oregon, Washington, California, Kansas, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi. Cherry Ridge also accepts foreign students and has taught youngsters from Canada, Mexico, France, Malaysia and Guatemala.
Tuition and boarding fees run $8,500 a month at Novitas and $10,950 at Cherry Gulch. Parents bear the cost of sending their children to the schools, which receive no federal, state or local tax money.
With more than 100 teachers, therapists and other staff members combined, the two schools have an annual payroll of $3.3 million, Andy Sapp said. Stephanie LaMore, office manager of the Gem County Chamber of Commerce, said she knows of no other private employers in the county with more workers.
Educational consultants connect students to Novitas and Cherry Ridge by advising families on where to place their struggling children. A consultant will usually recommend three to five programs that fit a particular child’s needs, and then the parents decide, Sapp said.
In 2010, the Idaho Psychological Association gave Cherry Gulch its Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award. In 2011, Sapp was named as one of the top 40 “Accomplished Under 40” by the Idaho Business Review.
Cherry Gulch is accredited by AdvancED, a national schools organization. Emmett High School and Black Canyon Alternative High School, both Emmett public schools, are accredited by the same group. Novitas, a member of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, is working toward accreditation.
All of Cherry Gulch’s teachers are certified by the state, and the three full-time and one part-time teachers at Novitas are working to obtain their certifications. One of the teachers has a doctorate, one has a master’s degree and two have bachelor’s degrees, Andy Sapp said.
Both schools have operated quietly, and there have been no issues involving students causing problems, said Chief Deputy Donny Wonder of the Gem County Sheriff’s Department.
‘A GOOD PLACE TO BE,’ TEENAGER SAYS
Carlos Zatz, 17, came to Novitas about three months ago from a town outside Charlotte, N.C. He said he struggles with his confidence and suffers from depression.
It was hard at first, Zatz said, after getting “plopped into Idaho” from the East Coast.
“It was hard to warm up, but once I did I made some friends, and I feel like we all have support for one another,” Zatz said.
Novitas stresses areas that weren’t found in the curriculum at previous schools he attended.
“I feel like this one focuses more on your goals as well as education,” he said. “I feel like the schools I’ve attended before go all out on academics and stuff and you don’t really get to focus on the things you hope to become. Education is great and key, but pursuing what you want, I think, is a big thing that makes this a good place to be.”
‘LOTS OF HANDS-ON, REAL-LIFE EXPERIENCES’
Matt Sapp, a social studies, religion and character development teacher who is Andy Sapp’s brother, said he presents students with real-world situations and asks them to come up with recommendations based upon their analysis.
A recent lesson considered the effects that raising the voting age to 21 from 18 might have on elections. The 26th Amendment, passed in 1971, gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Previously, only those 21 and older could vote.
Another lesson looked at the pros and cons of different styles of government for an emerging nation.
One student was asked to research diet and exercise and how they affect health. Another is studying the benefits of people self-regulating their speech to avoid conflicts.
“We want to have a lot of hands-on, real-life experiences,” Matt Sapp said.
Novitas also incorporates the Ruler Approach, developed at Yale University, which teaches students how to regulate their emotions. The program increases attentiveness, reduces bullying and creates an emotionally safe learning and living environment, Novitas says.
“Basically, they have the know-how. We just have to help them put it all together,” said Sharlene Tower, a special education teacher.
Silver, who wants to become an architect, said he likes how Novitas instructors force him to think about issues but are flexible in dealing with each student.
“Bigger schools don’t always know what’s best for the children,” he said. “I like it here.”