Visit Reports
Visit Reports

Nov 12, 2007, 12:44

Kalispell, Montana
Rosemary McKinnon, LCSW - Admissions Director

Visit by: Larry Stednitz, PhD and Kris Karge, LCSW, September 10, 2007

Montana Academy is located on several acres of remote Montana land, 30 miles outside of Kalispell, Montana. This very special school was founded by John Santa, PhD, his wife Carole Santa, PhD, Rosemary McKinnon, MSW and her husband John McKinnon, MD. The brainstorming that gave birth to the Montana Academy eleven years ago came out of frustration over working in an emerging managed care environment that severely limited length of treatment, irregardless of the clinical needs of the student.

With the creation of their own program, Montana Academy has been able to develop and enhance their relationship based approach to understanding and treating adolescents. In this model, the student's therapeutic issues guide all aspects of interventions, whether in therapy, in the classroom or in their residential life programming. A student at MA receives individual, group and family therapy. The emphasis on the clinical component is evident in the program's administrative team that consists of three PhD's, an MSW, an RN and two MD's. The seasoned clinical team also includes another experienced psychiatrist, Dennis Malinak. In addition to the clinical management team, Montana Academy also employs six PhD's/PsyD's and two additional LCSW's.

Montana Academy utilizes a multi-disciplinary team approach with a clinician, teacher and team leader responsible for ten students. The team manages the day-to-day interactions among student and their participation in all aspects of the program, providing a forum for clear communication and treatment planning.

Recognizing that success in academics is a key to treatment success, Montana Academy has emphasized their college preparatory work which includes AP classes, foreign languages, all sciences, music and dramatic arts. Small classes are provided allowing for individualized teaching and tutorial capabilities. Carole Santa, PhD, the Director of Education, noted that at least 50 percent of students enrolled at MA present with learning differences and a history of underachievement. With the individualized attention and organizational skills instruction these students are able to thrive academically at MA.

All the students are organized into "Clans". They are orientated to the school through weekly structure, provided a place for exploring their emotions, thought processes and life-limiting patterns, and guided in identifying personal goals for change. The "Clan" provides a family-like structure where students can experience trusting and healthy relationships. Each "Clan" changes psycho-educationally as a student progresses through the various developmental stages of the program. The Clans progress through the beginning orientation (Earth Clan) through the Moon Clan which is a focus on expression of feelings with an emphasis on individualized treatment. The Sun Clan centers on relationships and is the heart of family treatment. The Star Clan addresses goals, plans and leadership on campus. The Sky Clan is the final clan, focusing on shaping future direction and having a healthy and productive termination process with the MA community. The Clans meet once a week and are organized to deliver the psycho-social curriculum.

MA also organizes the students into teams which are considered their pseudo families. The students, "eat, sleep and do most group work by teams which includes stable adult "parental staff". Each team also includes the therapist, team leader and academic advisor.

This part of the country offers an abundance of natural experiential opportunities, of which MA fully takes advantage. These activities include a wide array of options such as horsemanship, hiking, skiing and wilderness experiences. This part of the program is designed to provide a vehicle for added insight and reflection, and enhances the therapeutic progress of the student.

A new development at MA is an improvement in their substance abuse treatment component. Upon enrollment, each student is administered the SASSI, a thorough substance history is taken and those in need begin a 12-week educational program which serves as an extended assessment period to further individualize their treatment plan. In the second phase, students work through a 12-step oriented workbook and participate in process groups five days per week. Phase three includes weekly support groups and students attend AA meetings.

I met with three of my students during our visit to Montana Academy. All seemed generally happy to be at MA and were very insightful in relaying their issues and the progress they have made so far. One student had been in the program a year and had relapsed about a month ago. MA referred him and two other students to a wilderness program to emphasize the seriousness of the relapse and to get them back on the right track. From the reports I received this intervention was timely and appropriate.

MA reviews their applications very carefully to make sure both the child and family are a "good fit". They accept students who have a wide range of psychological and psychiatric issues. All students are required to attend a wilderness program before applying which helps ensure students come with some motivation and ability to work on their issues. Admissions requirements include an average to above average intellectual and academic profile. Although they provide 24-7 supervision, they are not equipped to deal with serious runaway behavior, significant oppositional and defiant behavior or self-harm behavior.

Students must have some skills in self-regulation to benefit from the program as MA is a structured but not a restrictive environment. MA is committed to maintaining cultural diversity in their student body. In addition to careful screening of the student, families are assessed for their willingness to participate in the program and their commitment to a full course of treatment for their child.

As all high quality treatment programs, Montana Academy knows that their work is far more complex than a simple dose of therapy, group work, family work, structure, etc. They are a living example of a group of people who have come together and are well equipped to interpret behaviors and other subtleties necessary to orchestrate a powerful milieu. Montana Academy understands that running a program is the "Art of arts" and that all programs are a piece of work in progress.

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