Glacier High pilot program focuses on at-risk students

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Twenty Glacier High School sophomores will begin the climb toward graduation and young adulthood through a new pilot program, called Ascent, funded through a two-year Montana Academy Foundation grant totaling $139,004.

Ascent will serve students who are dealing with behavioral or emotional issues and are at high risk of dropping out of school. Participating students will attend Ascent for one class period a day to learn and practice concepts such as goal setting, planning, organizing, teamwork and self-care.

“These students need time and a structured system to develop more maturity,” Glacier counselor Chris Weaks said to trustees during an April school board meeting, referencing Montana Academy’s view on why behavior can become a problem.

These concepts will be taught through hands-on experiences such as ropes courses, hiking or canoeing, community service, guest speakers and exposure to postsecondary education. Glacier staff members are spending the summer designing the curriculum.

“The big picture part of this is we want students to graduate; get them engaged and hooked into something they’re excited about coming to school,” Weaks said.

Parental involvement will be key to Ascent’s success. Parents will be invited to monthly meetings dubbed “Parent University,” to learn parenting skills and techniques while connecting with each other.

“We believe, and so does Montana Academy, you can’t solve the maturity issues with just the student in isolation, you have to bring the parents on board,” Weaks said.

Glacier staff will manage and oversee the program. The academy will serve in an advisory, consulting and training capacity.

Glacier Principal Micah Hill described Ascent as a hybrid of the academy’s therapeutic approach in the framework of a public high school education. The school is tasked with how to make the biggest impact within the limited time frame of a school day and school year, as opposed to 24/7 supervised setting of boarding school.

Hill and Weaks will coordinate the program. It will be taught by social worker Peter Carlson, who will serve as a life coach, Hill said. Carlson was initially hired by the district through a different grant called the Montana Support, Outreach and Access for the Resiliency of Students, which is entering it’s fifth and final year of funding.

Montana Academy co-founders and CEO’s Dr. John McKinnon and John Santa will share a spot on the advisory board that will include Montana Academy Foundation vice-president Dr. Tom Bertolli, Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau and a school board trustee.

This is not the first time the school district has received a grant from the foundation and worked with Montana Academy to develop a high school program.

One of the areas supported by the Marion-based foundation is research — specifically on “adolescent maturation and the consequences of delayed or interrupted maturation,” in exploring “why and how children fall into self-destructive patterns,” and funding “further demonstration projects that attempt to apply those principles to real world situations,” according to Montana Academy.

Dennis Hartzell, executive director of Montana Academy Foundation, said the nonprofit is always looking at opportunities to apply the academy’s therapeutic model of helping teens in a non-residential, “real world,” setting. If Ascent is successful, Hartzell said the idea is to replicate it in other high schools.

In the 2014-15 school year, the foundation funded a one-year pilot program called Promise Academy, which was taught by a former Montana Academy teacher. There are similarities with Promise Academy and what Ascent is trying to achieve. In the Promise Academy, students who were at risk of dropping out were asked to attend a semester-long class that worked on academic accountability and emotional growth through team-building and trust-building activities in addition to parental involvement. When grant funding ran out, the program was discontinued.

Flathead Principal Michele Paine was an assistant principal at the time.

“It has led us to think about how we support our struggling students a little bit better,” Paine said. “It’s just hard to land on what is the absolute best thing to do and make the biggest impact on kids — and be able to fund it and afford it.”

Sustaining a program once grant funding runs out concerns the school board. Trustees approved Ascent with the understanding that district money may not be available to sustain the program.

“All these programs are good. There’s no question about it, but at some point what are we going to sacrifice to make this work,” trustee Frank Miller said at the April board meeting.

Kalispell Superintendent Mark Flatau noted from a financial standpoint, retaining students translates to retaining the state funding tied to the cost of educating student. Flatau said if data at the end of the two-year grant demonstrates significant success in capturing at-risk students, who then experience greater academic success, finding the funding might be worth it.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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