Just over a year ago we had a visit from the parent of one of our weekend staff. Joe Hannigan, from the faculty of the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University, came to speak to our staff about the importance of the stories that organizations tell about themselves, or that others tell about them, and the ways in which these stories reflect the values of the organization and become part of the mythology shared by a community.
It is time to retell a story that we often tell when new families visit our campus and ask how we came to be here in the depths of a hidden Montana valley. It is a story that the four of us share and we all tell it in our own ways with common elements that we take from one another and our shared memories. John McKinnon has written his own longer version of this story in chapter 2 of his second book, An Unchanged Mind, which will go up on the web site soon. It is the story of the founding of Montana Academy. We opened the campus to our first students ten years ago in June.
The idea for a therapeutic boarding school grew out of a number of diverse experiences. John and Carol Santa were themselves frantic parents of an adopted adolescent son who was bent on a course of failure in high school in the early 90s. They cast around for help locally and heard about the CEDU campus at Rocky Mountain Academy just across the Idaho border. They placed their son there, attended parent workshops, and began to think about the benefits of such an approach, as well as ways in which professional involvement, which the CEDU schools eschewed, could improve the process of family healing. Meanwhile John McKinnon had left a frustrating practice in adolescent in-patient psychiatry in Texas, where the encroachment of managed care on the relationship between psychiatrist and patient had curtailed treatment to fit the time allotted by insurance companies, not the needs of the patients. Montana was a few years behind Texas in succumbing to the straightjacket of managed care, but soon after John had created an in-patient team at Pathways Treatment Center in Kalispell, he found his work undermined by the opposing tides of requests to fill beds and then empty them as quickly as possible. He could no longer tolerate a practice of medicine which undermined his fiduciary responsibility towards his patients. He and John Santa became friends while rallying the state's mental health practitioners and hospitals to provide an in-state solution to the Medicaid mental health crisis. When Montana, in its wisdom, chose to grant the contract to a large out of state organization, they gave up in disgust.
The four of us came together around the kitchen table in November 1996 to sketch the outline for a new approach to adolescent treatment which would provide steady, skillful psychotherapy and attentive family work while not neglecting education. We wanted a relaxed setting allowing time for therapy and development to unfold without intrusion from the outside world. By January we had a business plan and by March, Scott Santa, a real estate agent, had helped us to locate the Lost Horizon Ranch down Lost Prairie Road off Hwy 2. We took out second mortgages on our homes and got to work.
There was one glaring hole in our plans. We had no idea how we would connect with the students and families we hoped to serve. We were operating on a field of dreams fantasy - "Build it and they will come!" Sometime in early 1997 John McKinnon went to spend a weekend with his father in Marin County and spoke with an old friend about his plans for a special school. She wondered if he had heard of educational consultants. When he inquired as to what such a professional did, she gave him the name of Virginia Reiss. Over coffee John described our plans. Ginny told him that if we were to succeed in this venture we would be unique in the country. She offered to help us by introducing us to her fellow professionals. A few weeks later two groups of these consultants flew in from around the country to meet with us and hear our plans. As we listened to their questions our task became clearer and this dialogue began to inform our vision. They referred us students. Since we were brand new and eager for any new referral, we had no idea about our readiness to handle some kinds of problems and that it might be important to say no.
We opened the campus in the third week of June for an eight week summer program and expected that we might serve 8-10 students at most. Instead we opened our doors with 21 students! They arrived over the spread of 5 days toting sacks of belongings and looking with contempt upon the shabby ranch house and the unfinished boys' dorm. We still look back on that first summer as one of the most stressful periods of our lives, rivaled only by becoming parents for the first time and checking on our babies frequently to make sure that they were still breathing. When we finally arrived home at the end of another long day on campus we rarely found ourselves able to sleep. We lay awake staring at the ceiling, wondering if the campus and its residents would still be there upon our return in the morning. Sometimes it was touch and go indeed. Some students feasted on mushrooms found on a camping trip. Others held blanket parties at night. One found unlocked gasoline to huff and brought cigarettes into the dorm. Daily they demonstrated all the possible ways to create potential catastrophes. We followed behind securing the latest loopholes, trying to create order out of chaos and to build relationships one student at a time to provide the foundation for a community to grow beyond the Kids versus Adults beginning. Phil Jones created order in the classroom - a small island of sanity - in the swirling melee. As I remember the students were reading The Lord of the Flies that summer and this became our metaphor for the danger of a community in which adults were not adequately in control and students were potentially dangerous. John McKinnon hospitalized out of control students at our local psychiatric facility, until their parents could come to read them the riot act and get them moving in the right direction. John Santa led hikes in Glacier Park and our young staff worked tirelessly at every task imaginable. At the end of the summer four students left and the remaining 17 stayed on (15 boys and 2 girls) to form the first Montana Academy graduating class of 1998.
So what does this story about our beginnings tell us? Certainly in our memories it lives on as a story of a vision, of persistence in the face of odds, of the terrible fear of failure, of the threat of anarchy, of the need for systems and order, of lessons learned in the task of forming a community both of students and of staff, of the bonds that relationships can bring and of the extraordinary trust and persistence of parents in the face of adversity.
This orderly community is a far cry from the chaos of ten years ago and we take special pride in the vibrancy and warmth of relationships between our staff and students. We still depend, as we always will, on the support of parents and thank you for your partnership in shaping this healthy environment.