A place of growth

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CHRYSALIS SOCIAL studies teacher Chris Dorfschmidt (left) answers 13-year-old Sami Feinberg's question while Jackie Spitz, 14, (front) and Megan Leone, 14, (back row) work independently during the final class of the day Wednesday.

Chrysalis School nurtures and challenges troubled girls

When he watches students from Chrysalis School in Eureka clamber up nearby Stone Hill, Kenny Pannell can't help but find parallels between rock-climbing and the students' lives.

"Rock-climbing is a wonderful metaphor for the kinds of issues our girls struggle with," said Pannell, who, with his wife, Mary Alexine, has operated the therapeutic boarding school out of his home for 11 years.

"Some are terrified," Pannell said. "Others get 2 feet off the ground. What they learn as they get better and better is there's always a way."

Pannell and Alexine, both licensed clinical professional counselors, have been helping girls find their way through difficult stages in life since they opened Chrysalis School in 1998.

They'd helped found Montana Academy in Marion in 1997 but decided that they wanted to work in a home-based school. Not wanting to compete with their friends at co-ed Montana Academy, Pannell and Alexine decided their school would be open to girls only.

They purchased two acres in Eureka in July 1998, and Chrysalis' first student arrived two months later. A number of girls trickled in that fall; the seventh girl arrived in January 1999.

Over the next few years, they added a handful of staff members and capped enrollment at 10. Demand continued to increase, Pannell said.

"At the end of three years, there was enormous pressure for what we were doing," he said.

Most of the pressure came from educational consultants, professionals who are not uncommon in urban areas. Consultants suggest the best possible learning environment for a particular student, and there was significant demand for schools serving the niche Chrysalis served, Pannell said.

Girls at Chrysalis have experienced depression, anxiety, or trauma from rape or molestation. Some are adopted girls with mild attachment disorder or teens who can't process their grief. Others are recovering from substance-abuse problems.

They aren't hardened criminals or girls with conduct disorders, Pannell said.

"In general, Chrysalis has softer girls, not hardened, tough girls," he said. "They don't make our neighbors nervous."

Fifteen-year-old Thea said she came to Chrysalis because she had several unhealthy relationships at home.

"I'm co-dependent," she said matter-of-factly. "I put a lot of work in relationships other people aren't putting work into."

Chrysalis has been a refreshing change, she said, because other girls are willing to be vulnerable in relationships. They "relate to you, your past and what you've done," said Thea, who has been at Chrysalis for almost six months.

"I felt welcomed because everyone is the same," agreed 14-year-old Megan. "There's no room to judge here. Everyone has been in each other's shoes at one point or another."

Charli was only 13 when she came to Chrysalis more than two years ago.

"I was super immature and had some social skills problems," said Charli, who came to Chrysalis for help in overcoming her self-esteem and self-harm issues.

"It's tough at first," she said. "But it's like one of the best places to be."

Other girls have thought so, too, and demand for Chrysalis' services has driven its growth for a decade. In 2001, that demand coincided with a neighboring couple's desire to retire and sell their bed and breakfast.

"Between their pressure and the educational consultants' pressure, we bought their property," Pannell said.

The bed and breakfast became "Lake House" because of its proximity to Carpenter Lake just outside the back door. The original house was christened Horse House, because the school's horses are kept near there.

Chrysalis has since added a third residence, the Cottage, a guest house, a schoolhouse and a large building for parties and other events. The campus sits on about 27 acres less than two miles from Lake Koocanusa, and up to 35 teenage girls call it home, at least temporarily.

Most girls stay at Chrysalis for an average of 18 months to two years, Pannell said.

At first, all girls attend classes at Chrysalis. Eight teachers teach core subjects in small classes, with somewhere between three and seven students.

Even though they're at Chrysalis, the girls are earning credits through Lincoln County High School's alternative school program. This makes for a nearly seamless transition for girls who transfer to the public school.

All students are required to attend school at Chrysalis for at least one semester, Pannell said.

"Ninety-five percent of our girls start out in [our] classroom for a couple semesters and finish at LCHS," he said. "We're careful not to send them before they're ready."

Many Chrysalis students have struggled in traditional school settings, so sending them straight back to public school would be counterproductive, Pannell said.

At the high school, the girls are allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. The girls also have plenty of extracurricular activities at Chrysalis, including community service work and the school's "adventure program."

Service is important at Chrysalis. The girls are active in the Eureka community, and the one or two international trips the school takes each year always include a service component, whether it's volunteering in an orphanage or helping a school with building projects.

"We just try to make sure the girls learn how to give back," Pannell said. "Kids in this generation are fairly narcissistic. Giving back, it's foreign to them."

Physical fitness is also an important aspect of life at Chrysalis. Pannell and Alexine take advantage of the school's location to keep the girls in shape.

They hike, mountain bike, swim, rock climb, canoe, kayak and ride horses as long as the weather allows. In the winter, they ski and snowboard every weekend at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The Chrysalis soccer team competes in the fall and spring against other private schools in Northwest Montana.

"It absolutely improves mood," Alexine said of the exercise. "They feel better in their skin, too. So many young women are bombarded with images of what they should look like."

The constant activity makes the girls stronger, which results in "spontaneous self-esteem building," she added.

The students also learn about themselves through the activities, as Pannell pointed out.

In life, as in rock-climbing, there is always a path to follow, even if a person has to feel around for a while to find his or her way, he explained. Impossible-looking rock faces always have holds; so does life.

"It's kind of hard to see those things when you start out," Pannell said. "If you just keep stretching with your hands and your feet, eventually you find a way up there. What they discover, through sometimes tears and lots of anxiety, is, 'I can do this.'"

For further information about Chrysalis School, call (406) 889-5577.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by e-mail at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com

JACKIE SPITZ, 14, of Maryland connects with 7-year-old horse Stormy in the stable area on Chrysalis School grounds Wednesday afternoon. The therapeutic boarding school offers an array of activities to help foster emotional growth in a safe and open environment. Allison Money photos/Daily Inter Lake

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