Students, Not Wards

The Ridge View Youth Services Center is the Colorado state goverment’s first major design-build-operate project.

Six years ago, Colorado’s juvenile facilities offered just one option to the state’s Division of Youth Corrections: locking up kids. The only way to place first-time, non-violent youth offenders on a campus with an academic culture was to send them out of state.

Ridge View Youth Services Center

Construction Budget: $42 million
Cost per square foot: $105
Delivery Method: Design-Build-Operate
Completed: 2001

Program Manager: Heery International, for the Colorado Department of Human Services
Owner/Operator/Lead Contractor: Rite of Passage, for the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections
Architect of Record: CSNA Architects
Design Architect: KMD Justice
Primary Subcontractor: G.E. Johnson Construction Co.
Furniture Subcontractor: Juniper Valley (Colorado DOC)
Athletic Equipment: Academic Specialties
HVAC Contractor: Long Building Intelligence

Colorado officials had high regard for youth rehabilitation organizations aiming to reduce recidivism by treating wards more like real students. The Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) was eager to work with state legislators to build Colorado’s first academic campus designed for adjudicated youth.

Fifty-six million dollars was allocated to bring Colorado’s youth offenders back to Colorado in a facility without fences. DYC officials and legislators believed that the private sector was leading the way in the academic model, and thus endorsed a proposal for a design-build-operate project.

Planners selected a site near Aurora, Colo., because it was somewhat remote but only three miles from Interstate E-470. In addition to being an easy commute for construction workers and facility staff, the location would lend itself to visits from families in metropolitan Denver.

And while Colorado’s business-friendly climate supported the partial privatization of DYC housing, the state had never before relied on the design-build delivery method for anything more complex than a parking structure, let alone written a design-build-operate Request for Proposals.

By 2001, the 500-bed Ridge View Youth Services Center would be offering core academics, vocational education and job placement, and an ambitious sports program. But Colorado’s achievement was first preceded by creating a clear outline of what the DYC needed, finding a suitable operator, and then letting that operator build a facility around their rehabilitation program.

Academic Model

Walking with a purpose is seen as part of student treatment. Pathways lead to far-flung buildings.

"Statewide, Ridge View was Colorado’s most ambitious dive into the pool of design-build," says Bob Niedringhaus, manager of planning and design for the Division of Facilities Management of the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees the DYC. "The challenge was to work with competing teams to develop design proposals that were acceptable to us."

KMD Justice and CSNA Architects together provided the master plan and conceptual design, two documents that would set the parameters for 16 teams responding to a clearly-defined, design-build-operate RFP. "We had a road map of what kind of facility we wanted, but since the operator had to live with the design, they should generate the design," says Niedringhaus.

Finalists had to present both schematic designs and outline how they would operate the facility. Winning the role of lead contractor and operator was Rite of Passage (ROP), a company that operates facilities for at-risk and adjudicated youth in the Western U.S.

KMD Justice and CSNA Architects were again united as part of ROP’s project team, joined by G.E. Johnson Construction Company. Representing KMD Justice were project architect Mark Ryan and project director Jim Mueller, who turned over drawings to Roger Sauerhagen’s team at CSNA about halfway through design/development.

Some of Colorado’s adjudicated youth were already familiar with ROP’s academic model through their experience at the company’s facility in Nevada. "We emphasize core academics," says John Fry, Ridge View’s principal. "Substance abuse treatment and other programs are more successful with the academic model because students see a reason to succeed."

Although ROP has been in business for 20 years and has previous experience in construction programs, the Colorado project was the company’s first design-build-operate contract.

Curvilinear spaces were created wherever possible, such as in the library.

Resembling a high school in every way, the $42 million Ridge View Youth Services Center fosters a student culture, not a prison culture.

No fences, no sallyport, and no doors to the student rooms. "Can you run a reform school model with a population that would otherwise be in a single cell wet room?" asks ROP President James "Ski" Broman. "The answer is, we have less incidents and we have better outcomes."

Driving up the long access road to the facility, visitors first see an athletic fields and the administration building. "We had a very normative, humanistic, campus-like design," says John MacAllister, director of business development for KMD Justice. "Basically, it reflected an architecture you’d see for a newer high school, or even a junior college campus."

Ridge View’s five residential buildings can house 500 students. In each 71-bed housing unit there is a central administration room configured like a fishbowl, a kind of control room that is one of the few components not found in the typical boarding school. "There are some cameras looking over the campus, but that’s what you’ll find in most high schools," MacAllister says.

The 12 campus buildings are primarily made of concrete block, colored in earth tones. Despite the simple building materials, designers tried to include curves wherever possible. Numerous windows offer views to the campus and transparency. Overhangs and sun shades add architectural detail.

The auto shop uses a educational program provided by Texaco.

"We tried to minimize corners and blind spots, but we didn’t let that get in the way of creating the most pleasant architectural elements," says Broman. "If we wanted a certain angle, we put that in. We wanted to have functional space in the library and chapel."

ROP also wanted a center quad, which is surrounded by single-loaded corridors to provide line-of-sight from most of the inside of the quad into all the hallways accessing classrooms. The overall campus layout is geared for pedestrian traffic to serve kids with busy schedules. Students walking with a purpose through the far-flung campus is viewed as an element of treatment.

Forgoing detention-grade furnishings, the library furniture is standard high school issue. "We needed a library with 20,000 books because, on average, a kid is going to read two books a month, 24 a year," says Broman.

A large, multi-purpose auditorium hosts classroom lectures, staff training, shift-change meetings, and student job fairs. Visitation occurs Saturdays in the cafeteria, where culinary arts students cater the event like restaurant professionals, while the visited appear dressed in shirt and tie for the occasion.

Saturday visitation also includes sports, played before an average of 1,000 spectators. The Ridge View Rams compete extramurally on the 3A high school level and have hosted statewide sporting events in rugby and cycling. A full-court gym and seven athletic fields support a total of 20 sports, including basketball, lacrosse, and both alpine and cross-country skiing.

The cafeteria, called the Ridge View Restaurant, lets culinary arts students turn visitation into a banquet.

"There were rip-run-and-steal kids who are now walking around campus shaking each others hands wearing letterman jackets," says Broman proudly. Officials say their facility is among the most-visited by correctional professionals, including U.S. congressmen, youth authorities from various states, and government officials from as far away as the Philippines and Ireland.

According to Principal Fry, the most common comment from visitors is on the comportment of the students. "When students come into contact with visitors, it’s ‘yes sir, no ma’am,’ and visitors can see everything revolves around education," Fry says.

Peer Culture

Ridge View is classified as "staff secure," meaning a high staff-to-student ratio minimizes the need for physical barriers, but this label trivializes the success of the behavioral program. To create strong relationships and a safe facility by providing role models, there is a "coach" for every six students in the housing units on a half-week, fireman’s schedule.

"We don’t just turn a key, lock a door, and go home," says Broman. Each 71-bed housing unit is divided into three living groups of 24, broken down into six four-person rooms with no doors. Approximating a college dormitory environment, students have access to washing machines and the rooms remain open to a larger communal space.


Brick/Masonry: Suburban Redi-Mix
Roofing: Firestone
Windows: Viracon
Ceilings: Armstrong
Gypsum Wallboard: WSG
Ceramic Tile: Daltile; Décor
Door Hardware: Ingersoll Rand
Wood Doors: VT Industries
Metal Doors: Gateway Metal
Cabinets: TMi Systems Design; ISEC Inc. [STET TMi]
Moveable Partitions/Walls:
Modernfold Inc.
Paint: Glidden
Draperies/Blinds: Levelor
Locks: Ingersoll Rand
HVAC Units: Trane
HVAC Controls: Invensis; Tridium
Security Fire Equipment:
Simplex Grinnell Fire Protection
Security Systems: Ranger Security
Lockers: Lyons
Athletic Equipment: Aalco; Advanced Exercise; Southwest Recreational
Physical Ed. Flooring: Western Floor
Bleachers/Grandstands: Irwin Telescopic
Drinking Fountains: Elkay
Library/Media Center: Highsmith
Projection Screens: Da-Lite
Marker Boards: The Shop Inc.
Laundry Equipment: WW Grainger; Washtime Industries
Computers: Toshiba

"The living space is essentially the living room for students in those rooms, and they have an open feel that allows communication," Broman explains. "There is no down time where kids are in their rooms laying on their bed and not engaged in an aspect of the program."

Incentives are an important part of this program. When juvenile offenders are about to be sentenced, they are offered a place at either ROP’s facility or a harder facility, presenting Ridge View’s many education and vocational programs as an opportunity. The choice to become a student is theirs.

Boys between the ages of 13 and 18 spend either one or two years in the Rite of Passage program, and their release is contingent upon meeting specific vocational and behavioral objectives. They enter as Rookies and have the incentive of becoming Rams, voted in by their peers. Violence and other violations of ROP’s standards are dealt with by sending youth back to the courts to be reassigned to a harder DYC facility.

Once students achieve Ram status, privileges include access to a spacious billiard and game room, with snack bar, and Saturday night movies in the multipurpose auditorium. But the final goal is graduating the program, which for 15 percent of Ridge View’s students includes a high school diploma and for many more will mean job placement.

"Every institution has a peer culture, and we’ve chosen to have a positive peer culture. We reward kids with the best attitudes and the most positive, pro-social skills," says Broman. "But as a Ram, it’s not just about the privileges, it’s about the responsibility of upholding norms. Your job as a Ram is to confront other students on inappropriate behavior throughout the day."

Education and employability are primary to the peer culture. Ridge View is a full-fledged charter school operating under the aegis of the Denver Public Schools. An impressive array of equipment is available to students to assist them through 11 possible vocational pathways, including an ample supply of computers, individual practice rooms for musicians, and shops for welding and woodworking.

The automotive program is built around a full auto shop and teaches the Texaco curriculum as part of a partnership with the company, while the construction program allows students to engage in community service with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, which fulfills another ROP mission, restorative justice.

"Success with the academic model requires a dedicated staff, student incentives, and a commitment from the placing agencies and the judicial system. Not everyone wants to work this hard," says Broman. "And if you’re looking at new architectural ideas in corrections, we would be the un-cola."

DYC officials originally envisioned a population of first-time, non-violent offenders, or about 30 percent of the DYC’s juvenile population. But two years into Ridge View’s operation, ROP is being tested and admitting a wider range of offenders to the program due to budget cuts. The only students Ridge View refuses are the chronically violent.

"We now have some kids who have committed a violent act, but it isn’t an established pattern of behavior," reports Fry. "We take about 60 percent of the total commitments in the state of Colorado, and within that 60 percent, there’s going to be a wide range of behaviors."

Although Ridge View hasn’t been open long enough to study the facilities success, ROP’s other programs have maintained low recidivism rates. According to Broman, a recent study of other ROP programs by the University of Utah concluded that the success in steering kids away from crime was 65 percent, while a study of one facility by the Los Angeles County Probation Department found 90 percent did not re-offend.