At the end of a dirt road on a remote hillside in Marion sits the Montana Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for troubled youth. On a blistering July afternoon, students rotate from one cabin to another, meandering through neatly landscaped grounds with an idyllic water feature at the center. The only other apparent activity is a pair of horses idly grazing in a southern field. Once the change in periods is over, the academy, at least on the outside, descends back into solitude.
The students who land at the academy come from around the country for reasons that vary as much as the individuals themselves. Depression. Drugs. Family issues.
They’re bright kids, staff say, they’re just stuck. And for some, the way out is through the archway of Montana Academy.
The school pairs classroom learning with individual, group and family therapy in a tiered clan system, where good behavior is rewarded with increased freedom. Students may spend upwards of 12 months there before graduating into the real world, or more often, to one of the school’s four transition homes called Sky Houses.
For many, the academy is their last hope.
“We don’t get kids because they hadn’t tried anything — parents send their kids here because they’re desperate,” said founding member and psychologist John Santa. “Conventional medicine and conventional out-patient psychiatry and psychology often don’t work, and if they don’t work you have to do something or else your kid’s going to die.”
To help kids in these high-stakes circumstances, the academy uses a well-rounded treatment protocol, integrating classwork with therapy in a highly structured environment free of drugs, social media and other distractions.
During the week, the students, who usually number between 35 and 60, begin their days with schooling until lunch, followed by group therapy and open office hours with educators. The rest of the afternoon is dedicated to physical education, dinner and evening time for studying or socializing. Saturday is devoted to recreation which could take the form of a group excursion to Glacier National Park, a local movie theater, climbing gym, or other activity. Sunday is broken into a combination of recreation and housekeeping.
“We don’t really view ourselves as doing therapy in one arena and doing school in another arena and doing extracurriculars in another — all of it is part of the whole student,” said assistant principal and Spanish teacher Matt Keenan. “As teachers here, we work really closely with our students. We get to know them really well — we participate in their treatment planning.”
The school employs a staff of 87, including nine therapists and nine teachers, bringing the employee to student ratio to at least one-to-one.
The therapy portion of their residency involves individual and family therapy on a weekly basis coupled with daily group sessions during the week.
“Chronologically they’re 16, 17 years old, but emotionally they’re not able to handle the kind of freedom,” Santa said. “When they hit adolescence, they become symptomatic …. with depression, anxiety, suicide attempts …. or when they hit school, they become overwhelmed and pressured and quit functioning. There’s a reason for each of them. There’s a narrative … and it usually begins in the family.”
Santa and his wife Carol partnered with psychiatrist John McKinnon and his wife Rosemary, a social worker, to found the school in 1997. They had a shared dream of starting a therapeutic academy to help the students who often fell through the cracks of the public school system or didn’t respond to traditional outpatient therapies.
They combined their understanding of young people with Carol’s educational expertise and opened the doors to the academy in 1997, expecting six or seven students for their first run. By week two, 20 students had enrolled and the academy grew from there.
“This is not a local little thing,” John Santa said. “There are about 20,000 kids a year that are in private-placed schools like ours all over the country.”
Over the years, the academy has added buildings and expanded programming, including the addition of four Sky Houses in Kalispell that collectively house 20-30 students.
“We started with one transition home about 12 or 13 years ago. We now have four,” Santa added.
Students will spend between six months and a year at one of the transition homes while they take courses at Flathead Valley Community College along with “volunteer jobs” — about 15 weekly hours of unpaid work at a local organization or business. Their whereabouts are monitored by staff and they are tested for substance use. Smoking and alcohol use are prohibited.
“We’re a very structured program here on campus,” Chariot said, “so to go from a lot of structural support to completely independent living … it can be a challenge.”
So, does it work?
The answer is a resounding yes, according to David Chiarito, the director of outreach and admissions, who said upwards of 80 to 90 percent of students move on to successful lives after finishing their program. The school does one- and five-year follow-ups with both students and their families to see how they’ve fared. For those who do regress, it’s most likely during their first year out of the academy and is often linked to substance abuse.
“I never see these children as broken, I see them as stuck,” Carol Santa said. “You’re just stuck at this point in your development and we can work through that. What’s really rewarding is seeing them change. When they leave they have so much more self-confidence and you just know they can take on the world.”