Miles up a winding dirt road west of Kalispell, amid timbered hills and grazing deer, a visitor reaches the entryway to Summit Preparatory School. A sign on the fence announces: “No Hunting.”
The posting is a firm reminder of the school’s genuinely rugged character, which isn’t coincidental. The operation’s mission, in fact, is inseparable from its surroundings, rooted in a belief that nature inherently has therapeutic value.
“Our founding was predicated on the healing process of being in the woods out here in Northwest Montana,” Executive Director Todd Fiske said.
The nonprofit has been executing its mission in those woods since 2003, serving teens ages 14-18 who are enduring variations of learning, emotional, social and psychiatric issues. The facility is rare in its co-ed emphasis and its status as an accredited therapeutic boarding school, meaning students’ coursework meets Montana Office of Public Instruction high school graduation standards.
Last week, the school held a ceremony to celebrate both its 15-year anniversary and the opening of a new art studio, with live music by Luke Dowler, arts and crafts activities and more.
“It’s exciting,” Fiske said of the anniversary. “We’re not a conglomerate. We’re a mom-and-pop shop, so to speak, an entity of one.”
While fine art, craftwork, music and drama have been integral to Summit Prep’s programming since its founding, the disparate endeavors have all shared the stage — literally — until now. Art and vocational trade students used the back of the school’s stage, while music and drama students used that same stage for their pursuits. The school believes arts, like the great outdoors, are instruments of therapy in their own right.
“This is an exciting transition to actually have a dedicated space for our art studio,” Fiske said.
Adam Shilling, who has been the school’s fine arts and vocational trades teacher since 2005, started using the new facility a month before the grand opening because he “couldn’t wait to get in here.”
“It’s like a dream come true,” Shilling said last week, standing in the studio, a standalone structure on campus that is well over twice as large as the previous back-of-the-stage space.
Shilling often has students coping with trauma, low self-esteem, life disruptions such as divorce, depression or any number of other issues that hinder their ability to properly express themselves.
“For these kids, the arts allow them to open up and be heard, to express themselves,” he said. “It gives them a voice. It’s a universal language.”
The new facility provides a number of avenues through which kids can find their voice: from table saws and woodworking to painting easels and sculpting.
The Summit has been helping kids discover and articulate their voice for a decade and a half now, dating back to when a long-percolating idea came to fruition. As college roommates at Trinity College in Illinois, Rick Johnson and Alexander Habib had discussed “wanting to do something to help kids.”
“We started talking about it in college, and over the years just kept the dream alive,” Habib said, according to the school’s history on its website.
Years later, college conversations took on material shape, and construction began on Summit’s main campus in 2001. Johnson and his wife, Jan Johnson, who both have professional backgrounds in mental health and social work, formed the clinical half of the founding team, while Habib and Mark Hostetter headed up the fundraising and philanthropic half.
The school welcomed its first students in 2003, and all four founders remain active with the school, which is one of the few nonprofit therapeutic, coeducational boarding schools in the country.
“It’s a unique and exciting project on at least two levels,” Rick Johnson says on Summit’s website. “On an educational and therapeutic level, the school strives for excellence with advanced college preparatory academics, along with caring and effective professional therapy.”
The school is proud of its tuition-based, nonprofit model because any profits are put directly back into its operations. Fundraising efforts and donations pay for projects such as the art studio, with monetary gifts often coming from parents of past students who appreciate the impact the school had on their sons’ and daughters’ lives.
Summit Prep welcomes students from across the country and world, describing its typical student as a teenager “experiencing difficulties with school, family, and often peers.” The students, numbering anywhere between 35 and 55 at any given time, sleep in separate dorms for boys and girls.
The campus includes a striking ski lodge-like main building, complete with expansive windows looking out onto a contained courtyard; a gymnasium with a basketball court and climbing gym; a weight room; ping pong, pool and foosball tables; a dining area and kitchen; and offices and classrooms.
The school’s property encompasses 560 acres, on which students participate in regular outdoor endeavors, including hiking and mountain biking. They also take trips to lakes and to ski resorts.
Fiske said Summit Prep employs 65-plus people, from drivers and night watches to clinicians and administrators, a point of pride.
“That’s a pretty cool thing to be able to employ those types of people around the valley who want to make a difference in a child’s life,” he said.