A Story of Discovery and Growth

In 1997 four experienced clinicians—two psychologists, a psychiatrist and a social-worker founded a new kind of therapeutic boarding school. All were in their early fifties. In prior decades they had been university professors, teachers and researchers, a director of hospital psychiatric services, a public school literacy expert and curriculum director, and therapists in private psychotherapy practices. Prior to the start of Montana Academy, all had become thoroughly frustrated by the mediocrity of options available for helping struggling teenagers who could not be managed at home or helped by local outpatient therapies.

Overcoming Conventional Psychiatric Treatment

There were three obstacles they (and all of their clinical colleagues) could not overcome in conventional psychiatric treatment settings. Residential hospital care had become so expensive that parents could not afford to pay for residential help for struggling daughters and sons without insurance reimbursement. Yet medical insurance companies were writing teenagers out of policies or interfering in clinical decisions so as to restrict or prevent the use of residential treatment. Academic psychiatry seemed primarily interested in research about pharmacology. Conventional clinical practice, tied by insurance constraints, focused primarily upon acute symptoms (e.g., a teenager’s deflated mood, or inattention in class) and increasingly confined treatment to prescriptions of pills or short-term outpatient therapies aimed merely at symptom relief.

The Vision Begins

To address these problems, the Academy’s founders (John and Carol Santa, PhDs, John McKinnon, MD and Rosemary McKinnon, MSW) mortgaged their homes, bought a ranch, and started a novel residential therapeutic school that would remove treatment from costly hospital overheads and defend the integrity of that treatment from intrusions into clinical decision-making

  • They hoped to provide expert psychiatric, psychological, and academic help in an out-of-home ranch setting for teenagers who could not be helped at home.
  • They wanted to remove that care from the indoor ambiance of a locked hospital ward, to avoid constantly shifting kids from one level of care to another, and to situate clinical help in the normal context of a high school.
  • They would choose not to engage with insurance companies for reimbursement from medical insurance, and instead they would reduce the costs and ask parents to pay tuition for a school supported by psychological expertise.
  • They would aspire to help children regain normal function, so as to return home or go on to college.

Montana Academy – The First Of Its Kind

In the year of the Academy’s founding there were other competent residential programs, but no other school in the country that offered this peculiar combination of “unplugged” outdoor ranch living, intimate therapeutic community, demanding prep school, intensive psychological help, and the leadership of experienced, well-trained clinical and academic faculty.

Starting an innovative ranch school for teenagers turned out to be the hardest thing any of the founders ever tried to do. Even in its rudimentary first stage it was an anthropological experiment. The empirical question was whether twenty grumpy, struggling teenagers, exiled from home and community and pals in thirty states, could join together with an equivalent number of adults to create a collaborative, useful culture on a remote Montana ranch. This was a question it would take years to answer, but in the end, the answer would turn out to be: yes.

Developmental Insight Shapes The Program And Sharpens The Purpose

At the start, perhaps because all the founders were romantics, there were few rules and little structure. For example, there was debate about whether we even needed a dress code. Did we not want students to express themselves freely, and wasn’t dress merely and expression of feelings and a symbol of identity? This initial lack of rules and structure also resulted, in part, from an early uncertainty about what clinical problem(s) would be referred to the ranch school. Within constraints having to do with safety, Montana Academy was initially open to all and so educational consultants referred parents of teenagers with all sorts of problems and diagnoses. It took months to discover the common denominator around which a program could be structured.

Finding the Common Denominator

At the start, the wide diversity of referred students (in terms of their symptoms, diagnosed “disorders,” and misbehaviors) was confusing—until it came clear that what they all shared in common was global break-down; they were failing across the board in all venues of modern adolescent life: at school, at home, socially, and among peers. Even closeted in their own bedrooms they were symptomatic: angry, sad, defiant, ashamed, demoralized, anxious, and/or preoccupied with computer games, cutting, promiscuity, or drugs (including alcohol). Predictably, given the global nature of their repetitive failures, and given our initial lack of structure, the early result was a state of nature not unlike what William Golding described in Lord of the Flies—a subterranean, sneaky, defiant, antagonistic adolescent sub-culture and an exasperated staff playing the part of the British Navy.

Montana Academy Therapeutic Boarding School Hiking

Fixing The Approach

That initial laissez-faire approach soon ended. We soon recognized in parents’ complaints about their daughters and sons, and in our own experience with them, a repetitious set of psychological common denominators: florid self-importance, self-preoccupation and lack of consideration for others’ needs or feelings (starting with parents and siblings); a lack of true empathy, an inability to put themselves into the shoes of others; a lack of goals and plans, including an apparent lack of a firm grasp of the consequences of present misbehavior; a manipulative nature in close relationships; and a lack of inner scruple about selfish misbehavior beyond a concern about getting caught and punished. This “flawed approach” was what parents were most worried about. It was what parents wished we could fix.

Developmental Immaturity

After hearing parents’ complaints and after living in close quarters with so many of their daughters and sons we realized that this flawed approach was not badness or obtuseness or mental illness, but merely an apt description of the normal psychology of a toddler. That is, these bright young people were progressively failing to negotiate many of the challenges of a modern adolescence because they were “stuck” with the psychological “approach” of much-younger children. The core problem that so many students shared, despite the diversity of their surface symptoms and variety of their pre-admission diagnoses, was a relative immaturity. The common problem was not an acute psychiatric syndrome or symptom amenable to psychotropic medication; it was incipient narcissistic character pathology caused by persistent childishness: a failure to grow up. This diagnostic insight shaped the program at Montana Academy and determined its structure. The common purpose would be: to help “stuck” teenagers to overcome obstacles to development and to grow up.

Establishing a Structure

Our students helped to create that structure. They pushed for limit setting by demonstrating the self-indulgence and misbehavior that a lack of limit setting makes inevitable in young children. They pushed staff to define boundaries, make rules, create and publish schedules, resolve conflict, and make routine expectations (and consequences) explicit. It became obvious that this limit setting was the correct response, although it was not what students consciously wanted, because as soon as our staff put these sensible “parental” structures into place at the ranch, students (and staff) were very obviously relieved. In this vivid series of interactions during Montana Academy’s first years, students and staff together created many of the structures that remain, with minor adjustments, to the present day: the “team,” the “clan,” the “checklist,” the “group,” the “dorm meeting,” an expected decorum of dress and diction, customs about acceptable personal, and a reliable schedule. These structures soon felt as if they had come down on stone tablets–as if they always had been there. Noisy complaints and debates petered out, and those boundaries, rules, rituals and traditions became the foundations for a civilized, stable ranch culture.

A Shared Purpose

In the process, staff and students settled down to work and play together.  They discovered they liked each other and depended upon one another. Their needs and wishes, like those of parents and children, turned out to be reciprocal. Living in close quarters, as in a family, adults and teenagers had to figure out how to live together.  January in Montana can be -30 degrees outside, and so staff and students had to share limited indoor space and common resources, starting with food, water, firewood, and warm places to sit down.  More broadly, they shared common tasks.  If no one worked, no one ate.  This sense of a common space and shared purpose influenced other forms of collaboration.  Together, students and staff worked out procedures, created rituals of recognition (e.g., team groups, clan promotions, academic award ceremonies), and invented Student Council, Café Nights, and super clean. With time, these elaborated routines, groups, tasks and rituals were assimilated into a unique culture.

Protecting A Community

To sustain that culture, as it developed, the school’s leadership got better at selecting students and parents and staff who would be willing and able to live within the limits and constraints of this emerging sociology. To defend it, Montana Academy staff took the trouble to search luggage and packages.  To protect a valued community, students helped guard against drugs and weapons; to keep them out of a community whose shared conversations and common goals required that everyone feel safe enough from bullying to speak frankly and  sufficiently free of addictive temptation to work at strengthening self-discipline. In time, on teams and in classrooms  an affectionate cooperation began to be the norm. Adults and adolescents helped one another to “get through this.” It became a shared goal for every student to get on with growing up, so as to graduate and to get back to normal lives.

Resolving To Get Better, Rather Than Bigger

In a second stage of Montana Academy’s development the student body reached mature size. Given the founding aims, there turned out to be an optimal number of students and staff. For a therapeutic school can be too small, on the one hand, to support enough teachers and classrooms and equipage to provide a varied and rich academic curriculum, to support art, ceramics, music and drama. Yet if a school becomes too large, students and staff cannot all know one another, and the community loses an intimacy that promotes affectionate mutual recognition. We groped for the right size, and when we reached three girls’ teams and four boys’ teams at the ranch, we stopped. We resolved that we would work to get better, not bigger.

For a time our innovations were limited to the ranch.  We introduced music, art and ceramics and students performed in choir, jazz band, and sang a capella at graduations, entertained one another by performing at Coffee House nights, and sang and played for their parents at workshops. We completed the construction of the ranch campus with a new horse arena and gymnasium.  We built new septic fields and remodeled the original dorms. In the shop students and staff together built dining tables and sofas and chairs for the new Lodge.

The Introduction of Sky House

There remained, however, a recurrent problem.  Too often the transitions after graduation from the protected ranch perimeter to the unsupervised, unprotected, distracting and dangerous mass culture beyond proved precarious, and there were some hard landings.  We resolved to address three dimensions of this problem: (a) a return to the parent-child relationship; (b) substance abuse and the risks of intoxication and addiction; (c) the post-graduate regression, or “J-curve.”

Involving The Parents

Given that our purpose was to send teenagers back to their families, one way or another, we saw that we needed to involve parents more profoundly while their sons and daughters were still at Montana Academy, to permit them to renegotiate and reform their relationships as those young people became more adult, and so resume primary responsibility for the adult tasks of day-to-day parenting after graduation. To help them with this, we established Parent Workshops in the Fall and in the Spring. We brought together parents, students, and staff for intensive three-day retreats with lectures, group discussions, meals together, and family fun. We then invented a third parent “experiential”—a summer parent-son or parent-daughter cabin trip organized by each team.

The J Curve

All across the country, a post-graduation regression (that was commonly referred to as the “J Curve”) was commonplace, and too often, our own students regressed.  Graduation was followed for some students by a scary, destructive return to old friends, old bad habits, and old patterns of behavior: squabbling, defiance of family rules and curfews, academic and personal struggles, and sneaky evasion. Among program staff we knew that a graduate might fall into outer darkness, but then usually recover one’s senses, restore a rapport with parents, pick oneself up and sort out life again. This fall and recovery suggested the shape of a “J.”

Addressing Risk Factors

We saw this “J” curve too often. The recovery was reassuring , but the fall was frightening to parents, other students, to the graduates themselves, and to us. We saw no virtue in the “J” curve, nor any reason to accept that regression was inevitable. After all, some students hit the ground running after graduation, moving from strength to strength, never glancing backward at their old troubles. So to address these regressions, we made two more innovations. One would address the most obvious risk factor–drugs and alcohol–in a preventive way. The other would provide more practice, prior to graduation.

Protecting Our Graduates

Painful experience taught that alcohol and other drugs were banana peels on which our graduates often stumbled. The risk cannot be entirely avoided, for drugs have become ubiquitous in American culture. Some students have already become besotted with them prior to their arrival at Montana Academy, or have been ensnared by other addictive habits, e.g., video games, internet/technology use, self-harm or compulsive promiscuity. From experience we knew that conventional Twelve- Step programs, which were developed for adults, did not perfectly suit teenagers.  Yet we needed to be proactive in order to provide protection for all graduates, even for those for whom illicit drugs had not yet become problematic.

Addiction Prevention

Accordingly we hired a splendid, innovative, experienced substance abuse counselor, who is an expert at the developmental aspects of substance abuse prevention and treatment.  We involved all students in frank educative discussions about addictions of every kind, both the allure and the risks. For students whose histories suggested a propensity for addiction, we added an intensive seminar that made these risks (and students’ histories) explicit and personal. We paced this teaching and treatment to the progress of students growing up.  For, unlike one-size-fits-all approaches to substance abuse, we knew that developmental childishness makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for immature teenagers to face up to their addictive tendencies. Rather than try to “treat” teenagers who were not ready, we timed treatment to coincide with a shift in maturity that provided a basis for teenagers to take responsibility for their own addictive propensities and to achieve the self-discipline that sobriety requires.  Only mature teenagers are ready to take seriously their own histories and to recognize both the attractions and the costs of addictions.

We also addressed the “J-curve” directly by creating a context within the Montana Academy experience for senior students to practice self-discipline, and to take more responsibility for their own lives beyond the protected perimeter of the ranch. For older students, who would soon try to live more independent collegiate lives, we saw the need to provide the occasion for regression before they left the program and left behind their established, close, constructive relationships with staff and students.

Transitional housing from Montana Boarding School to Adulthood

An Intermediate Step

To do this, we created a second “town” campus. We bought three gracious homes on leafy residential streets on the east side of Kalispell and called them Sky House(s).  Older students, after they became senior in the program, moved into town, where we provided less assiduous and less constant supervision and direction. All the modern temptations would be available, all the risks of the modern “real” world would be palpable. And at Sky House students would have to organize their own lives, attend classes at Flathead Valley Community College, work hours at part-time jobs, find their own diversions, exercise and recreation, attend groups with their peers and AA meetings (if relevant) in the Kalispell community, and establish young adult, distant but also close, relationships with their parents.  Like other American young people, they would make their way into the brave new modern world beyond the ranch.

A New Sense of Self

In sum, from its start as a flight from managed care and from exorbitant inpatient hospital costs, Montana Academy gradually has evolved its own forward-looking, optimistic, ambitious goals: to provide expert help to teenagers and parents in removing hindrances to adolescent development; to encourage immature teenagers to grow up and catch up developmentally, with age-peers, and so to become effective students, close, affectionate, loyal friends, considerate sons and daughters, and self-confident, self-respecting young adults; and then to prepare them to make the transition from the protected precincts of a remote ranch to the plugged-in, complex, distracting and more risky, but also more exciting, more complex and sophisticated “real” world beyond the cattleguard.

In the years since its beginnings, the conceptual threads with which a unique residential therapeutic school was founded have converged around a conviction about the priceless value (to a person, to a family, and to society) of a fully-developed, mature personality. The original somewhat arcane ideas about maturation came to be woven, over the years, into a unique, practical culture and into the intense young lives students pursue together at contemporary Montana Academy.

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