When Bigfork Schools Superintendent Matt Jensen thinks about his students, he becomes passionate, a man on fire committed to supporting the most vulnerable of his community.
So when the number of students who have experienced severe trauma in their short lives increased, Jensen knew there was a chance to do more for them.
The Bigfork school system is now partnering with Intermountain, a Helena-based organization with a branch in the Flathead dedicated to child and family therapy and wraparound therapeutic services for a wide range of issues, including fostering, adopting, substance abuse, youth case management, and home support services.
Beginning in the upcoming school year, the Bigfork campus will host Intermountain staff as they provide day-treatment support for students with mental health diagnoses from the DSM-V. The kids will be in a regular classroom throughout the day, with a special-education teacher, therapist and support staff.
There, they’ll get exposure to the academics of their grades, but will also be exposed to the therapeutic components as well. Day-treatment services will include therapy for the individual, group and family.
“Historically, we’ve only had one or two students in our entire school of 500 plus students that have that high trauma experienced that require a program like Intermountain,” Jensen said in an interview last week. “In the last several years, we’ve seen that number increase; we’re looking at about 1 percent.”
One percent of the student body is about five to eight kids, he said, and the school has limited therapy options for the students, not to mention their families.
“Schools are not built to be full-family therapeutic wraparound services,” Jensen said, noting that they have counseling services, but not at this level.
That’s where partnering with Intermountain came in. Marvin Williams, the education director at Intermountain, said the services that will be offered have been tested on the Intermountain campus in Helena, where they’ve run a successful day-treatment program for 25 years.
“When Bigfork approached us a couple years ago to come to Helena just to observe our campus site, they saw the day-treatment model,” Williams said. “Two years later, lo and behold, we’re starting a day-treatment in their building.”
The idea is to provide care for children in the moment, right when they need it, Williams said. Often, in such cases, meltdowns or emotional trauma can require immediate attention, and day-treatment can aid them.
The students will also cook snacks and eat lunch family style to emphasize manners and socially appropriate behaviors, Williams said.
And once the student no longer needs the services?
“The beauty of having it in a public school like this is these kids are going to get healthy, and once they are ready to return to their classroom, we can help with that transition,” Williams said.
Instead of going to a treatment facility where students would have to uproot their lives to attend, they can stay in a familiar environment with people who already know their struggles.
“Our whole purpose in this is to help these kids establish healthy relationships with their peers and adults,” Williams said, “and to let them feel that they can trust and feel supported by adults.”
Since the program is a collaboration between the schools and Intermountain, financing is also a team effort. Williams said Bigfork frontloaded some dollars to help offset staffing costs, but the clinical funds come from private sources such as insurance, Medicaid and Intermountain.
Jensen said that keeping his students in their comfort zones is an important piece of the partnership, especially because it includes working with their families. Healing “takes more than a school day,” he said.
“It’s hard for us to have a kid in our system that we’re working with blood, sweat and tears, and just pouring everything we can into this kid, and then send them away to a program outside of town,” Jensen said. “It’s good for them — God bless them when they go — but we’re totally invested with the child and the family. This model where we can have them in our schools — the program is great.”
For more information on Intermountain and its services, visit www.intermountain.org.