Unique program for troubled youth closing
Education: Stampede Ranch used western life and nature as teaching tool
By: Bruce Campbell
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 11, 2013 10:13 am
The sun has set on a school focused on using a western lifestyle and some unique educational ideas to help troubled youth for more than 30 years.
The Stampede Ranch, west of Longview, closed its school the end of June and will close the home for the six youths still at the ranch effective Oct. 31.
“There were lots of little things,” said Fawna Bews, the spokeswoman for the ranch for the reasons the ranch is closing. “It’s a group decision. It is like you have done your job and it has run its natural course.”
Other factors include Stampede Ranch is facing funding issues as its facilities, which include overnight cabins, a cookhouse and a barn, which need some renovations. The program needed 15 students to break even. It had 14 students when the school closed in June.
Stampede Ranch’s students are under the guardianship of Alberta Family and Children Services, with the education component provided by the Foothills School Division.
The school started in 1975, using the vision of Mervyn and Bernice Edey, who bought the ranch, which was once owned by Calgary Stampede founder Guy Weadick in the 1950s.
“The story is a government official found Mervyn’s idea in the bottom of a desk after 12 years and someone came out to see him,” said Gail Edey, Mervyn’s daughter-in-law. “Mervyn told him ‘Give me three of your toughest kids and we will provide the environment, nature and a family and it will work.”
When the program started the students had been labeled as being juvenile delinquents and were often institutionalized. Seeing a young person behind bars rubbed Mervyn the wrong way.
“It was the sight of seeing kids locked up — he felt they had to be given a chance because they were coming from broken homes,” said Fawna, Mervyn’s granddaughter.
She said the program started back when little or nothing was known about such conditions as fetal alcohol syndrome or attention deficit disorder.
Mervyn’s son, Ross, who was teaching in Eden Valley at the time, was brought in to provide schooling for the students. His vast experience with the backcountry and horses provided an outlet for the students as well. His wife, Gail Edey, helped with administration duties.
The Edeys have always taken a home schooling approach to education — the Stampede Ranch was foremost the students’ home and then their school.
“It was a home first and the school is a necessity because the kids that we have often can’t manage in a typical school,” said Fawna while sitting in a recreation room built by Guy Weadick.
She said several of the students grew up in a home where they are in “survivor mode” — the Stampede Ranch provided safety and normalcy for the students.
“We establish a family setting and provide consistency and stability,” Fawna said. “We have kids who have had no predictability in their lives — where is their next meal going to come from, is someone going to come home drunk and if he’s going to get hit.”
They have had students at Stampede Ranch for as short as a period of a week or as long as six years.
“Mervyn’s outcome measures were smiles on the kids faces,” Fawna said.
The students would combine schoolwork with physical activity, ranging from working in the barns, riding horses and hanging out with nature in the scenic foothills west of Longview.
“When Ross first started they called this school the barn school,” Gail said. “His first responsibility was to make the kids safe, work on their self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves… Ross might tell them ‘do a page of writing and then we will go riding.’”
In the late 1970s, Stampede Ranch brought in Dan Fox, a teacher from the Foothills School Division who would drive in from Nanton and ended up teaching at the ranch for more than 20 years.
“Ross had the barn school and Dan had the school — he was amazing,” Gale said. “He would challenge them to climb mountains, do their school work — do things they never thought they could do.”
One of those activities would include Ruby Tuesday. On Tuesdays Fox would challenge the students to climb “Mount Ruby” a hill south of the ranch.
The schoolwork would be woven in with activities to motivate the students.
“Our kids were rarely motivated because they never achieved,” said Fawna, who has done Rub Tuesday several times. “They would look at Ruby the first time and say: ‘No, I am not doing it.’
“Before long, they were running up the hill in 20 minutes.”
If a student was having trouble with the schoolwork or acting up they would be sent to the “barn school” where they would work with Ross cleaning stalls and horses or other outdoor chores, where they would settle down, before returning to the school.
Gail estimated there have been 1,500 students go through the Stampede Ranch system since 1975. Although the ranch had students go on to post-secondary school and one who became an athlete of the year at a Foothills area school, the staff doesn’t consider school marks the sign of graduation.
Graduation at Stampede Ranch is when the student has more self-confidence and moves on, whether it is being placed in a foster home, back with his or her family or off to work, she said.
Foothills School Division superintendent of schools Denise Rose said the teachers and assistants who were at the school have been placed at other schools in the area.
“It feels sad,” Rose said. “They have done such good work up there. For some kids the Stampede Ranch and working with nature and the horses really clicked with them.”
Fawna said work is being done to provide a safe-environment for the six youths currently calling Stampede Ranch home.
She did not know what the future is for the ranch after Oct. 31.