Graduating to a New Life

By Beacon Staff

The dirt road leading to Montana Academy cuts through a prairie surrounded by forest. Cell phones are no good here. Only a few cabin homes dot the landscape. The closest city is a day’s hike away.

Teenagers from all over – California, New York, Florida – arrive in this rural setting and almost always feel lost. Many of them are. That’s why they’re heading down this path. They need help. Some of the kids are heavy drug and alcohol abusers. Others are depressed and suicidal. Almost all have dropped out of school and given up on their future. They are lost, the same way Michail “Mickey” Eggelhoefer was lost.

Mickey was not even a teenager when anxieties and other “baggage” led him to start drinking at least four days a week. Then he began smoking marijuana. Pretty soon Mickey was constantly intoxicated and a stranger to himself and everyone who knew him.

He arrived in Northwest Montana, stayed for 17 months and three weeks and in August he graduated from Montana Academy and returned to Vermont to finish high school. He’s been sober for almost two years.

“When I came in I was very troubled. I had a lot of baggage and what we talk about as trauma,” he said. “Here (at Montana Academy) I started to figure out who I was and then accept it. A lot of people think you come here to become normal. I would disagree. You come here and you actually get an advantage. You understand yourself so much better than before.”

On Dec. 21, 17-year-old Mickey flew back to Kalispell and traveled west until he turned down that familiar dirt road. Montana Academy was holding a graduation ceremony and Mickey wanted to be there to congratulate his old friends and former “teammates” on their accomplishment.

Almost 200 people, including families from across the country, gathered inside the main lodge for the celebration. Twelve teenagers walked down the aisle and were recognized for achieving the program’s goals. Eleven of those teenagers, each wearing a cap and tassel, were also awarded high school diplomas. Some are going on to prestigious universities like Stanford and Brown.

Before diplomas were presented, several graduates and parents shared their stories with the crowd. One graduate explained how years of being bullied and insecure led to drug use and anger problems. At Montana Academy he learned to confront his inner demons and become strong enough to face life’s challenges in a healthy way, he said.

One of the student’s fathers, who had glassy eyes as he stood at the podium, explained the transformation from hopelessness in both him and his son.

“Before Montana Academy I was so fearful for my son I would awake in the middle of the night in tears,” he said. “Today is the first time in years I can see my son in his eyes.”

The story goes that 15 years ago, four experienced professional clinicians who were dissatisfied with the way troubled teens were being handled in the medical world mortgaged their homes, bought a tract of land outside of Kalispell and started what has become a rather revolutionary approach to boarding schools.

Founded by John and Carol Santa and John and Rosemary McKinnon in 1997, the Montana Academy is a therapeutic center that combines a traditional boarding school residential program with a fully accredited preparatory school. The academy is not a drug treatment center, although roughly 60 percent of the students that arrive at the ranch for the first time are struggling with some sort of drug or alcohol addiction, according to an administrator.

The enrollment hovers around 70 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18. The average stay for a student is 18 months. About 96 percent of students graduate, according to administrators.

With a payroll of over $3 million, Montana Academy has 70 adults on staff, mostly teachers, psychiatrists and other medical professionals. Instead of turning to medication, or trying to categorize teens by a symptom or behavioral problem, staff focuses on adolescent development.

“We’ve realized that lots of adolescents are just misdiagnosed. The attention is put on their pathology or symptoms, like you’re depressed or anxious or A.D.H.D.,” John Santa, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, said. “Well that’s not what they need. What they need is to be contained and slowed down so they get a chance to grow up.”

Since opening, Montana Academy has kept a low profile. Staff and administrators rarely tout their achievements, and neither do their graduates. The founders prefer the simplicity and solitude of their ranch. It helps them get to work.

The academy’s curriculum and guidelines have evolved throughout the years but remain centered on the idea of nurturing an individual’s healthy development in a tight-knit community. Which explains, in part, the wilderness setting. The founders were already living in the Flathead Valley before moving forward with their vision, and a quiet setting outside of town seemed ideal. Being away from a city, students are removed from their comfort zones and detached from a few of the everyday distractions. They are not allowed to have cell phones, although it wouldn’t matter considering the location. No iPods either. Computer access is for studying only.

Instead, students are organized into single-sex groups of 10 that become their “team,” which essentially becomes their family. Each team has a set of staff members who overlook activities and are liaisons for the prep school, which has a full list of academic classes and programs, including Advanced Placement (AP).

The administrators admit the cost of attending the academy is high, but it is still less expensive than it would be to seek the same breadth of treatment in a hospital setting.

The ratio of staff to student is such that everyone becomes intimately familiar with one another. That’s been one of the goals from the start.

“We help them develop these really close relationships with their peers and with these adults that know them deeply and it frees them from what they’ve been holding onto,” Santa said.

The academy’s ranch covers a wide swath of land that includes full dorm living quarters, classrooms, a library and a main lodge. A new building is being constructed to meet expansion needs.

Another aspect of the academy is the Sky Houses in Kalispell. Sky Houses are traditional group home settings where up to eight students live with adult supervisors for the final months of their enlistment in Montana Academy. The Sky Houses offer students who are ready to chance taking a small step back into a larger community.

Recently Montana Academy purchased a fourth home on the east side of Second Avenue West and requested a conditional use permit to operate a new Sky House in a single-family residence. As has happened in the past, the group home and its students were not entirely welcomed.

At a Kalispell City Council meeting on Dec. 19, a few residents protested the group home, expressing fear and concern over troubled youth entering the neighborhood.

John McKinnon and John Santa responded by defending their students and the path they’re on, calling the teenagers “first-rate” citizens who volunteer for a wide array of activities to help the community, including Habitat for Humanity and the Center for Restorative Youth Justice. Other residents spoke up in support of Montana Academy, its group homes and its “model citizens.” One man, Mark Clifton, said in two weeks he would have been sober for 32 years, and it’s thanks to a program similar to the academy.

The city council approved the group home’s permit.

Mickey spent an hour before graduation embracing old friends, sharing stories and laughing. He had a wide smile all day. He stepped away for a moment to share his experiences at the ranch; what his life was like before and after Montana Academy. He now shares deeper relationships with his parents and sister. He takes responsibility for his actions, and understands consequences.

Back in Vermont at high school, “it’s not as real as here,” he said.

Mickey wasn’t going to miss the chance to return for another graduation.

“I needed to see some of my friends graduate. They’re so close to me and it wouldn’t be fair to miss this,” he said. “And also partially for me, it’s rejuvenating to come back here and remember the people who care about me, remember the experiences, remember where I’ve come from.”