School is so much more than a place to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. In school, children learn how to work in teams, how to build relationships with their peers and adults, and how to manage their emotions and feelings when in a bustling and energy-filled environment. If kids in treatment can learn to operate within those environments, rather than isolated from them, they have a better chance of success when they leave treatment. School gives them a place to practice the new skills they are learning in a "normal" environment.
That's why the Ranch established the Dakota Memorial School District many years ago—to give the children living in residential treatment access to a quality education. Other residential treatment facilities provided tutoring for residents unable to attend public school, but we wanted more for our kids.
Lonny* is one young man who learned a lot about his own abilities while he was in treatment. When Ranch President/CEO, Joy Ryan, asked him what he learned at the Ranch, he said, "I learned I'm pretty smart. I didn't know that before." He became an avid reader in his short time at the Ranch and had a special affection for Hemingway. When Lonny completed treatment, he returned to his home school and graduated with his class.
Then, because DMS was often the first and only place their child had ever been successful in school, parents and guardians sometimes wanted their children to remain at DMS when they completed their residential treatment program. This led to the creation of a DMS Day Program so, when appropriate, students could continue their education at DMS.
15-year-old Cain benefited from the specialized services provided at DMS both while in residential treatment and after discharge. Cain had struggled in public school before coming to the Ranch. He didn't fit in and his school didn't have the resources to provide Cain with what he needed to be successful. When he discharged from residential treatment, Cain's parents chose to keep him at DMS for another year—even though it was a 71-mile drive from their home. Each day, Cain's mom or dad made the 142-mile trip twice—going home while Cain was at school so they could continue to work.
Schools, struggling to provide a positive education for a select group of kids, asked DMS to take on additional students—students who had no former tie to the Ranch. Again, the Ranch stepped up to the plate to increase space, add teachers, and seek licensing, giving students with the highest needs a safe place to learn.
Anthony attended Dakota Memorial School from 5th grade through graduation. His struggles with extreme depression and anxiety didn't result in a need for residential treatment, but they made it difficult for him to connect with his teachers and peers. He couldn't focus on his work and was getting farther and farther behind. It took time for Anthony to be comfortable at DMS, but he eventually build good relationships with several staff and he started to excel. Anthony graduated from DMS in 2019.
In 2019, we hit another crossroads as our capacity couldn't keep up with the demand. Two years of study and research, along with a constant waiting list led to another expansion of the DMS Day Program.
In Fargo, DMS had an ongoing waiting list for middle school students (grades 6-8). So, during the summer of 2019, the Ranch created space for two additional balanced learning environments and hired additional teachers and paraprofessionals to make room for an additional seven students in the Day Program.
In Minot, the school was experiencing an increasing enrollment of elementary students. At the same time, the open floor plan of the building was no longer suitable for meeting the needs of kids who were coming to us with increased needs and behaviors.
A team of educators and facilities staff came together with a lofty goal to remodel the school—without creating any interruptions in the school year. The result was a complete remodel of the school and thanks to contractors, Ranch facilities staff, and school staff who all worked tirelessly, it was ready for students when they came back to school.
The remodel created "Learning Neighborhoods" within the building. Every student has a place in the building based on their grade level, content and learning needs, and special services. This provides for less disruption between the upper grade and lower grade students. Walls were built to separate classrooms—which quieted the noise and created calmer spaces for students to learn. This is especially important for Ranch kids who have sensory issues.
The new space also created a transitional program and classroom for elementary and middle school students with a variety of individualized programming needs. And, it allowed for a Day Program-focused area where Day Students are welcomed each morning and staff can hold private meetings with parents and outside agencies.
The Minot remodel allowed us to add an additional five students and created a better-suited learning environment for the 60 students at Minot DMS each day.
In addition to increasing enrollment numbers for Day Students in Minot and Fargo, leaders worked together to build therapeutic support around each Day Student—to include behavioral health therapy, occupational therapy, and trauma-sensitive learning strategies. The goal of these changes is to help our kids recognize their triggers and offer a variety of brain-based strategies for self-soothing and regulating emotions so they can learn.
The DMS Difference
What you can't readily see when you walk through any of the DMS locations is the tremendous amount of learning teachers and staff have done over the past several years. Researchers have made significant advances in understanding the brain over the past 10 years. For instance, when a student struggles with emotional issues, a biological shift occurs in the brain, which stalls higher-order thinking and classroom learning until the brain can recover. We are now aware of new strategies that can help students recover more quickly so they can return to learning. The new spaces give us room to implement these strategies.
Along the same lines, researchers have learned that the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning. Integrating deliberate movement into the classroom throughout the day, rather than just 50 minutes of Physical Education class, not only helps children learn, but helps to regulate their emotions.
The biggest difference is in the culture. Becoming a trauma-sensitive learning environment requires teachers and staff to make a major shift away from a traditional punitive behavior management mindset to one where educators assume students would do well if they could. Staff training, collaborations, and many discussions have led DMS educators to an understanding of trauma and its impact on the brain.
If you just focus on behavior, you do not address the student's fears or heal their brains—in other words, you do not get to the root of the problems. This doesn't mean students don't have consequences for their behaviors, but that they are viewed from a place of compassion and understanding.
The next step is to create additional learning spaces in Fargo's Dakota Memorial School—which will allow us to accommodate the educational needs of additional students.
We know that with the right people surrounding students, in the right environment, even a deeply wounded boy or girl can achieve academic success. The many changes at DMS will give more young men and women the chance to experience true success.
This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Winter 2019.
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