Like every other high school, Dakota Memorial School typically holds graduation ceremonies at the end of May; and this year, we have students graduating on all three Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch campuses. Graduation is a big deal at the Ranch. Regardless of the number of graduates, we decorate the gym and celebrate in style for the benefit of our students and their families.
This year, we also held a COVID-friendly graduation ceremony in January.
"The stars aligned, and it worked out for three of our seniors to graduate from high school in January," said Shayla Leinen, principal at Dakota Memorial School, Fargo. "Two of the students lived in foster homes and one discharged from the Ranch to his own apartment just a few days before graduation. They were each either 18 or would be turning 18 soon. What is unique about this group is how self-aware they were. One knew the odds were slim that he would catch the bus to school without an adult making sure he would get up on time. Another worried he wouldn't be able to juggle school and a full-time job; and that out of necessity, school would be the first to go."
All three students wanted to graduate, but they didn't think it was possible for them.
"They all needed an additional 1-2 credits to graduate, on top of the seven classes they were already taking," Leinen said. "Insert dedicated teachers and determined students here!"
Science teacher, Shea Durham, created an astronomy class so one student could meet the required science credits. Another student needed two social studies credits. So Social Studies teacher, Matt Kuebler, worked with her to complete "Problems of Democracy;" and school staff helped her enroll in "History of the Holocaust" at the North Dakota Center for Distance Education. The third student needed an English credit, so Special Education teacher, Lyzz Harpster, set up an independent study fiction course.
"It was all hands on deck—students, parents, foster parents, teachers, therapists, youth care workers, and paras. Ultimately, the students had to do the work and there were a few times it looked like it might not happen for them," Leinen said. "But they all did it with no shortcuts!"
Hank*, one of our January graduates, is pretty convinced he wouldn't have graduated if he hadn't started attending Dakota Memorial School.
"I had got into some trouble, and so [Dakota Memorial School] took me in. At my other school, you were on your own, but here the teachers and staff work as a team," Hank said. "The teachers and staff are really good here. They care."
Another graduate, Brandon, said he was at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch and Dakota Memorial School because his home school didn't have the training to deal with his challenges of anger, depression, and anxiety.
"The Ranch was a much calmer environment for me. And then just having people around to talk to about my suicidal thoughts or my depression," Brandon said. "Staff were there to talk to me about anything, anytime. And, the staff at Dakota Memorial School have done everything in their power to get me to where I'm at so I can graduate. If it weren't for the Ranch, I'm not sure where I'd be."
Where are they now? Hank is working full-time at the front desk of a hotel in Fargo and enjoys playing in a weekly men's rec hockey league. Brandon is working full-time as an assembler at Bobcat. And Baylee is working full-time at a Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch Thrift Store. She plans to apply to Minnesota State University Moorhead and start college in the fall.
*Name changed to protect the confidentiality of our kids.
This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Spring 2021.
Read more inspiring stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice.