DEER LODGE — For 40 years, Jim McDonald stayed on the cutting edge of special education in Montana.
His work helped pioneer the former state hospital children’s unit in Warm Springs, and later established four thera-peutic group homes for children in Butte. Most recently, as director of the Great Divide Education Services cooperative in Deer Lodge, he oversees special education resources for schoolsin six area counties.
That much time treating students with disabilities can leave some teachers burned out, but not McDonald. The 62-year-old Anaconda native will retire at the end of this school year with energy to spare.
“I wanted to go out feeling good about what I do, instead of leaving because I’m angry or fed up,” McDonald said. “It seems like I only started yesterday.”
Charlene Anderson, clerk and business manager at the co-op, said McDonald always did right by children and used his experience to keep the school districts in compliance.
“He told us he was retiring and we just got sick to our stomachs,” Anderson said, with a smile. “Whoever comes into this position will have some big shoes to fill.”
A NATURAL PATH
Education seemed like a natural path for McDonald. Both his mother and older sister, Sister Mary Jo McDonald, had worked as teachers.
McDonald also looked up to Father McCoy, his principal at Anaconda Central High School, as a model educator.
“He was a real strict disciplinarian, except when a kid really got in trouble,” McDonald remembers. “Then he would become very gentle and supportive in how he dealt with the situation.”
McDonald graduated from Central in 1967, and soon after earned degrees in history and elementary education from Carroll College.
He worked his first job as a sixth-grade teacher at the old McKinley Elementary School in Butte. Like Father McCoy, McDonald had a soft spot for the students who struggled more than others.
“I wanted to see how better to reach these kids,” McDonald said.
In 1975, McDonald picked up a master’s degree in special education from Montana Eastern College – now Montana State University-Billings.
At that time, the school offered the only special education program in the state.
“I learned how to individualize instruction and break learning down into its components,” McDonald said. “Despite what some say, not all kids learn at the same rate.”
Three years later, McDonald went to Warm Springs as education director at the new state hospital children’s unit, led by Dick Rosenleaf.
The unit separated kids with severe emotional and mental issues from the general adult population to educate and place them back in the community.
“These are kids that just couldn’t make it through the justice system,” McDonald said. “We were the bottom rung on the ladder.”
After nine years, however, the Department of Institutions – now the Department of Public Health and Human Services – moved the unit to Billings, where it lasted only nine months.
“It was really disheartening,” he said. “(Kids) are actually being sent to programs out of state that we know nothing about, except that they will take them for the right price.”
McDonald bounced from Shodair Children’s Hospital to AWARE Inc., using the same team model in therapeutic youth group homes back in the Mining City.
“We attempted to take those kids from Warm Springs and provide them a safe and secure living environment in the community,” he said. “And, we were pretty dang successful.”
By 2000, McDonald took over as director of Great Divide, a co-op to provide special education services for school districts in Powell, Lewis and Clark, Granite, Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Beaverhead and Madison counties.
Stepping down, McDonald will work his last day June 14. He hopes the executive council will hire a new director by early May.
It will be tough to match McDonald’s knowledge and broad network of contacts, Anderson said.
“He has a way of bringing everyone in together on an issue,” she said. “He’s just such a child advocate.”
McDonald lives in Butte with his wife and said he is proud of their contribution to special education.
“I really feel we’ve had a profound effect on parents and students in the state,” he said.
— Reporter George Plaven may be reached at 496-5597, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/@George_Plaven.