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Schools & Program Visits - Oct, 2001 Issue #86 

Yellowstone Boys & Girls Ranch
Billings, Montana
Loren Soft - Director

Report by Kristie Vollar from
Lon Woodbury and Kristie Vollar’s visit on
June 15, 2001

Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch continues to show many signs of growth, evolving into a wider range of services for Montana. Driving up to the little self-contained community I had vague memories of our visit back in 1994. Probably the most memorable landmark, for me, at Yellowstone is their non-denominational chapel, which is still an integral part of the program. Faith is a strong component of the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch; children are still requested to attend Sunday chapel regardless of their religious backgrounds. They don’t have any problems getting the children to attend, because of the staff support and the stuffed animals that flood the chapel creating a cozy and comfortable environment. The water tower displaying the original Yellowstone Boys Ranch emblem still towers over the community, as does the original entrance sign.

We started our tour in the main school, looking at the empty classrooms where the residents spend their school days when not on vacation, as they were during our visit. We walked across campus to the new day school, where troubled children from all over the Billings area attend. This day school is a new part of the Yellowstone program, located in a building that was built from donations from the surrounding communities. The day school enrolls between 40-50 local students who have been struggling either with learning or behavioral issues, in their previous school setting. Each class in the day school contains 3 staff members for up to 10 students. The students are brought by bus from the surrounding public school districts, which contract with Yellowstone instead of placing the students in “resource rooms”. Each has an IEP, is searched for contraband through metal detector wands and visual and pat-down checks upon entering the campus, and is generally kept separate from the residential students to create a safety amongst the residents. Day students are also offered both lunch and breakfast at school. Yellowstone is an individual school district and is now dually accredited through JACHO and COA, which took intense training and planning sessions for the staff members.

The two-week summer vacation was in full progress when we visited, with only a few students remaining on campus, leaving it almost deserted except for the contractors who were busy remodeling and landscaping. Extensive improvements are being made on the campus, and we were told their endowment fund for campus improvement was well on its way toward successful completion. Yellowstone students get two weeks of vacation in the beginning of the summer, two weeks at the end of the summer, and two weeks for winter break. During vacations, the children go on camping trips and other day-activity trips with their lodges.

There are currently 110 beds at Yellowstone, and at the time of our visit there were 87 students enrolled. The boys and girls are housed on separate campuses within the Yellowstone community, with each campus divided into lodges. We learned that in addition to being diagnosed with a wide variety of disorders, about 75% of their students needed Special Education services as well. The lodges range in structure from the highly secure and intense clinical lodge to the transition lodges. Each lodge (as well as each school building) has “time-out” rooms, which are used mainly as an open- door intervention. Whenever a student becomes violent or a threat to self or others, a trained clinician supervises the locked door policy. Each staff member who works with the children must complete extensive training in policy and restraint, supplemented by 16 credits of restraint training each year.

In addition to the lodges and school buildings, the Yellowstone community grounds include a park-like area with several gazebos, a large gymnasium and swimming pool, a ropes course, sports fields, and facilities for a full equestrian program. Staff live with their families across the park from the student lodges, always available for the students’ needs. Housing is also available for parents while visiting their child. The dining hall is used both for dining and as an auditorium for plays. Students who have gained and maintained trust are allowed to work in the kitchen, where they earn a small amount of compensation. The funds are deposited in the students’ checking accounts and used to help teach how to budget finances.

A new part of the program, called “Partners in Progress,” involves aftercare treatment team’s visit to the student’s home to set up a mentor and support system for the student upon graduation. The team follows the student for six months, aiding in anything the student needs to continue making progress after he/she returns home from Yellowstone.

In addition to the new day school, the new COA accreditation, and Partners in Progress, Yellowstone has expanded its resources for Montana families in a program they call “Community Based Services.” We left the Yellowstone Ranch campus after lunch to visit the new CBS program which is currently in Billings and Lockwood, serving over 300 kids and families through therapeutic foster care, in-home services, and group homes. They are also currently expanding these services to Livingston and Bozeman. Each child or family is assigned a case manager who visits the home, to help keep the family together and teach them ways to operate as a functional unit. Yellowstone guarantees any child who receives his/her high school diploma through them will have financial aid for college if they want it.

Although Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch enrolls students from throughout the country, they focus on providing mental health services for all the struggling teens in Montana who need specialized mental health services. The Ranch is making great progress in creating a way to deliver a full range of these types of services to other community oriented programs; perhaps a model that should be closely considered by other states and communities.

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