Vocational Education began at the Minot campus of Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch many years ago with livestock, a corn crop, and honeybees. It has changed over the years to become Career and Technical Education, and now students learn and practice technicals skills like small engine repair, welding, carpentry, plumbing, facilities maintenance, and more.
In his Career and Technical Education classes, Andrew Meier teaches safety first. "We start off each semester with two weeks of safety training. The kids get kind of frustrated because they want to start working with the tools, but safety comes first. We learn how to use each tool before we start working on projects—they don't use the tools until I feel they're confident in the shop environment."
Then they move onto skills building. "I really focus on the skills," Meier said. "In carpentry class, I teach them how to measure and cut accurately. When you are building things, 'close enough' doesn't work."
Wyatt, one of Meier's students, has taken most of the classes Meier offers. In this quarter's small engine repair class, Wyatt and his classmates are repairing snowblowers, weed eaters, garden tillers, and anything else they can find that needs repairing. Right now, he is working on three lawnmowers.
"I brought these mowers from home," Wyatt said. "One I pulled out of the trees where it had sat for years and years. They all have the same engine, so I'm pulling parts from each to make one that works."
Wyatt has discovered he loves to analyze and fix things. "The nice part about this class is that you get to diagnose things," he said. "Sometimes we think we've got it and then it starts smoking or banging and you start all over. Think logically and you get things fixed."
In addition to the technical skills he has learned and practiced at the Ranch, Wyatt has learned many other things he'll take with him to his first job when he graduates in May.
"I'm learning how to work with others and how to communicate. I'm not the greatest at explaining things, but I can show you how to do something," Wyatt said. "That's one of the great things about shop class. We get to learn how to fix things, learn how to explain it, and show others how to do it."
Meier encourages students to work together. "When a student asks me a question, I won't answer immediately. I'll say, 'Wyatt, show him what to do.' There is a lot of collaboration and giving students the opportunity to work together."
"The kids don't come out of here with a certificate or a license in any one thing," Meier said. "But most of them have never handled tools at all. Their competence level soars after they are here."
Wyatt took Meier's carpentry class and said the highlight of the class was punching a hole in the wall. "We frame and sheetrock a wall, then punch a hole in it that we have to repair. It's a lot harder than it looks to patch a hole. I can patch it, but I can't make it look pretty!"
In one class, students learn how to plumb a bathroom. When they are done with the plumbing, they place the toilet, sink, and cabinet. The project culminates with a ceremonial flush of the toilet, an exciting moment for students learning just how much they can accomplish if they set their minds to it.
Todd Fjeldahl, who has taught at the Ranch for 25 years, also teaches classes in the shop and he sees it as much more than just teaching skills. "So many of our kids have low self-esteem issues and feel belittled and not worth anything. Much of what we do is build kid's confidence. Some of them might not become one hundred percent proficient in an area, but we are planting seeds."
Another hands-on experience the Ranch provides is gardening. All three campuses teach kids about planting, maintaining, and harvesting through hands-on participation. Gardening is foreign to many of our kids who have grown up moving from place to place and living in unstable environments. While they may never make a career out of it, watching things grow and seeing how you can nurture something from a tiny seed to food on your plate brings joy to some Ranch kids.
For careers we are unable to recreate or simulate, the Ranch uses The Virtual Job Shadow, an online interactive program that connects academics to real-life through interactive job shadowing featuring real people in real careers.
"Kids all want to learn, they want to be challenged, and they want to belong," Fjeldahl said. "They want to have a piece of what you're doing in class and show you they can be successful, even if they don't admit it at the time. They all want to improve and feel worthy."
Over the years, Fjeldahl has visited with adults who were once in his classes at the Ranch. "I run into these adults who tell me they use some of the stuff they learned in shop in their jobs. A couple of my students ended up in the oil industry and the safety training came in handy. One young man told me he worked for an oil field safety company and he showed me his business card. That was real rewarding for him, and for me too. I'm so proud of them."
Putting new skills to work
Ranch teachers and staff also teach job hunting and interviewing skills; and in some cases, help kids get jobs. Some start with on-campus jobs—working in the kitchen, foundation office, or facilities—then move on to jobs in the community.
The Fargo Youth Home's unique location, in a residential area, just blocks away from many businesses, makes it very convenient for kids to have part-time jobs.
"Of course, they must be in the right space emotionally, and have all the appropriate permissions, but when that's all taken care of, we help them with the process of finding a job," said Tom Kopp, Residential Treatment Director in Fargo.
Kopp said they start by asking the kids some questions. What businesses in the community hire kids your age? How would you get there if you got the job? Do you pick up an application or apply online?
"We don't answer those questions or do the legwork for them," Kopp said. "We want them to do it themselves because that's all a part of being independent."
When they have the applications or are ready to apply online, Youth Home staff help them complete and submit their applications. They also conduct mock interviews.
"They'll start in the kitchen and come knock on the office door," Kopp said. "Tammy Moreno will be there to open the door and shake their hand. Then she brings them into her office and asks them typical interview questions."
When they are done with the mock interview, Moreno, Case Manager at the Fargo Youth Home who does much of the independent living training, talks to them about what they could have done better. If they had a weak handshake, she'll point that out and tell them why it's important to have a strong handshake. Then they will practice. If some of their answers were questionable, they'll talk about ways to show themselves in a positive light while still being truthful.
Paving the way for success
Everything we do at the Ranch is about helping children and their families succeed. While the initial focus of a child's name at the Ranch is learning to manage their emotions and behaviors, it is vital to their future to also teach skills they can use throughout the rest of their lives—to make a living or to create a hobby.
"We want kids to turn 18 with the skills and experiences they need to be successful," said Kopp.
Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.