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News & Views - Dec, 1997 Issue #49

Kalispell, Montana
(an open letter signed by)
Rosemary McKinnon, MSW, Adms. Dir.
John A. McKinnon M.D., Med. Dir.
John Santa, Ph.D., Headmaster
October 8, 1997

(Montana Academy officially started enrolling students in June 1997 -Lon) 

Montana Academy is up and running. Twenty-one students spent the summer with us; sixteen continue into the fall. Six new students enrolled in September, and so our student body numbers 22. 

Carol Santa (Director of Education) and Shirley Harrison (Science) and Philip Jones (Language Arts) created a curriculum for the first two academic blocks that centers on field studies in biology and writing assignments that integrate language arts with biology and therapeutic assignments. The teachers, working with Carol, developed individual educational plans and have planned course work for the coming year so as to meet academic needs or graduation requirements for each student. Our new Work/Study teacher, Alan Sullenger, collaborates with students on a variety of beginning ranch building projects and plans a barn-raising next month. His wife, Barbara (our splendid cook), teaches teams of Work/Study students in the kitchen, where the cuisine grows more complex as student skills improve. Last week’s menu featured Turkish and Armenian dishes, reflecting the heritage of two students. Jason Bustad, who studied agriculture at Washington State, has taken the ranch in hand. He supervised a harvest and the bucking of hundreds of bales of hay for winter feed. In August the first elk arrived—a majestic bull and a small herd of cows and calves. In the garden, now going over, a few students this week erected a winter shelter and introduced two piglets. 

Over the summer our therapy program evolved, as we have learned what our students need. The full staff mobilized to take all 21 students into the Bob Marshall Wilderness for ten days at the summer’s end, but we chose, as the model for future Adventure Therapy expeditions, the less ponderous, shorter trips we took with smaller, more intimate groups, into the Ten Lakes Basin. On campus we recognize the need for weekly full community discussions—of social conflicts, logistical problems, and works in progress. A consensus about this community’s values begins to emerge in explicit debate. Kenny Pannell (Program Director) and Mary Alexine (Lead Therapist) conduct group therapy in small groups of 5-7 students, three times each week. Every two weeks the staff and students formally review each student’s progress in “Phase Meetings.” Kenny and Mary, along with John Santa and me (John McKinnon), see each student at least weekly in individual therapy, and keep in touch with families. Many students arrived on medications, regularly reviewed by Dr. McKinnon. Half the students’ families have visited the ranch, many several times, for family therapy before outings; other families stay in touch by phone, or plan visits in the coming weeks. 

Communications have been a struggle. Bugsy Jorgenson, our new administrative assistant, now schedules student/family calls. We have made progress in communications with referring educational consultants. A new integrated phone system will soon replace the clumsy existing separate lines. 

We have noticed in these first months that we do best with “softer” students, whose troubles stem more from trauma, anxiety, depression, inhibition, grief or learning struggles and less from established character pathology or intransigent substance abuse. As many of you have advised the key lies in developing a strong positive peer culture before trying to absorb severe conduct disorder. Without such a well-developed positive peer culture a relaxed ranch community is too unstructured, unlocked, cluttered with tools and rich in hiding places to manage students who negotiate relations with adults, or with one another, with habitual violence, belligerent defiance, compulsive substance dependence or flight. 

Presently we have bed space for 28 students. Currently we have 18 boys and 4 girls—not our ideal ratio. We would prefer to fill the ranch house with 12 girls and reserve the new bunkhouse for 16 boys. For this reason, we particularly welcome referrals of girls, at this point. 

Starting this academic and treatment orchestra has taught us humility. It has proved a challenge to coax new students and staff to play music at all, much less in tune. At times the logistical dissonance created cacophony, and all summer the days began early and ended after midnight. All in all, start- up has been just as strenuous as many of you predicted. At the end of the day, however, driving home under the stars, we felt something magical had happened. Where three months ago there were a few worn ranch buildings and silent pastures there are now students working, teachers teaching, cooks cooking, and therapists walking with students in the hills—a busy campus. 

We thank you for your support—a faith we are working to earn. 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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