Above: Six of the seven 2019 high school graduates at J Bar J Boys Ranch. Left to right: Tyler R., Tyler K., Joe S., Justin B., Aaron C., and Michael B.
Forty acres of grassy pastures, framed by snow-covered Cascade Mountains, make up J Bar J Boys Ranch in Bend. It’s no longer a working ranch, although each July, horses and riders from across the Western United States and Canada converge on the property for Oregon High Desert Classics hunter/jumper competitions.
The expansive vista and the showy annual event may garner the most attention, but it’s what’s happening inside two unobtrusive classroom buildings that’s having some of the greatest impacts on the youth living there.
Run by J Bar J Youth Services, the ranch houses a residential program and an independent living program for 29 Oregon Youth Authority youth, educated on site at a separate school.
Thanks to supportive and dedicated teachers and program staff, seven youth graduated with their high school diplomas this June — a quarter of the program’s population. Four of the graduates started by earning their GED, then pushed on for their diplomas.
Amy Fraley, J Bar J program director, said that offering GED testing on site has been one contributor to the youths’ successes, plus the fact that Bend-La Pine Schools, whom J Bar J contracts with for educational services, offers nine bonus credits to students who pass their GED test.
But J Bar J has also had an increase in students earning diplomas due to staff — including academic coordinator Pam Price — pushing hard to make sure all the students’ school credits count.
“Our kids are moving around a lot and often have credits from different schools,” Fraley said. “So we dedicate a lot of time and resources to make sure all their credits are accounted for.”
The Class of 2019 was J Bar J’s largest group of graduates yet. Staff went all out to make sure the students got a real ceremony similar to what they might have had in the community, with an outdoor event that included caps and gowns, congratulatory speeches, numerous guests, and a colorful food spread made by youth and staff.
While everyone celebrated current successes beneath the canopies of aspen trees, the future of J Bar J’s educational programming was under construction nearby: a 4,800-square-foot vocational building that will include a woodshop, a small engine repair program, a room where students will learn how to frame walls, a classroom, and a quieter, dedicated GED testing room.
“The thought behind this building was that we would be able to produce a workforce,” said Bruce Waldrup, J Bar J’s other program director. “A kid can graduate from high school out here, get some basic construction skills in our new building, and then go out into the community and get a job right away.”
Justin B., one of the 2019 graduates, helped with the initial construction work on the building. He was excited about the potential to continue the small engine repair studies he started while he was at Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility.
“It helps me get work experience so that it’s not as hard to get a job,” he said.
He also felt the construction work helped him better visualize the math and science he was studying in school — subjects where he typically struggles.
“When I was doing carpentry out there, the angles made sense, the cuts, the measurements — it was like putting together puzzle pieces in my brain,” he said. “It clicked in my head and it was a lot easier than math and science that’s not hands-on.”
Tyler K., another graduate, seemed to fit right in on the ranch: His senior portrait shows him atop a tractor, and he wore a cowboy hat under his cap at graduation. He plans to go on to college to study diesel mechanics.
He said he bounced from school to school while going to different residential programs, and was way behind on credits when he arrived at J Bar J. He passed the GED test and used the bonus credits from Bend-La Pine Schools to work toward his diploma.
“My parents were wanting me to get my diploma, and I thought if I just got my GED, they would be disappointed in me,” Tyler said. “It feels great to be here.”
Joe S.’s mother gave him a colorful lei — handmade by her family in Australia — to wear at his graduation. Joe said the idea of being a high school graduate felt surreal.
“Before, at my old school, I didn’t really care about getting my high school diploma. Now, here I am, graduating,” he said. “I credit my fiancé — she got me to buckle down and realize what I wanted for myself, and that I was better than what I was.
“It’s a big confidence boost, getting my diploma. It’s a reminder to me that I can do anything if I just buckle down, do what I’m supposed to do, and utilize the skills that I have.”