Mora ranch opens for statewide literacy boot camp

MORA, N.M. — At Collins Lake Ranch, New Mexico students are sharpening their reading skills in the great outdoors.

“We’re so fortunate to have a place like this for kids to be outside,” said Steve Smaby, the founder of Collins Lake Ranch.

Babbling brooks, fields of wildflowers and mountains towering over the horizon. It’s hard to find a place more peaceful.

Steve Smaby bought this 300-acre oasis just outside of Mora about 25 years ago. He transformed it into a safe place to live for his son with autism.

This summer, it is home to a boot camp for students enrolled in the New Mexico Public Education Department’s first ever summer reading program.

“As an educator who’s been around for a while, you know, we’ve tried the different approaches, but we know that the science of reading is what works,” instructor Kaya Long said.

They’re giving New Mexico students some extra help before the upcoming school year. It’s needed as the most recent testing data shows only 38% of New Mexico students are proficient readers. While most instructors are working to boost those numbers in classrooms this summer, this wasn’t an option in Mora.

“They were doing some construction at the school, wasn’t able to do it there. So she asked if I would do it, and I have a bad habit of always saying yes,” Smaby said.

Smaby knows what’s at stake.

“The truth of the matter is, these kids have got to learn this. These are these are our future employees. This is what’s this is the future of our of our community,” he said.

Instructors say the great outdoors adds something special.

“We know from science that engaging in nature, natural sunlight, natural environment, organic lines, even smelling dirt, changes our body chemistry and stimulates our brain,” Long said.

Students play educational games. One game involves students finding wooden disks with letters on them. Then, they say the name of the letter, the sound of the letter and a word starting with the letter. They may even give a sentence with that word.

“They’re picking out sounds, picking out words, remembering words, and playing with sounds and playing with words,” Long said. “Those are all signs that it’s a very effective program.”

Smaby says there are only about 30 students coming out to the ranch this summer but he’d happily welcome even more.

“I wish there was 100 kids out here. But you know, if one or two of them remember this for the rest of their lives, I’ve done what I want to do,” he said.