Summit Preparatory School to Close

With declining enrollment, nonprofit therapeutic boarding school west of Kalispell announces final graduation in May

By Tristan Scott

Cloistered in the forested foothills west of Kalispell, the sprawling 600-acre campus at Summit Preparatory School has since 2003 furnished students with a therapeutic formula that combines the rigors of academia, the mental health expertise of a clinical team and the inherently restorative properties of nature.

But in the more than 15 years since Summit Prep debuted its unique program, other similar resources have sprung up across the country, with many in closer proximity to urban centers.

As the suite of mental health resources for adolescents has continued to broaden, enrollment at Summit has seen consistent declines, leading to an unsustainable model for a program that must employ 60 staff to maintain its 24-hour supervision, as well as both mental health and academic resources.

On March 8, Summit Preparatory School’s Board of Directors voted to close the school amid another year of declining enrollment, a decision that its co-founder, Rick Johnson, described as difficult but necessary.

“It finally reached a point at which the organization could not subsist on the number of students it has enrolled, and that has been a declining census over the past four or five years,” Johnson said, adding that the leadership team explored new funding opportunities and partnerships, but they never came to fruition. “Working in mental health is unique in that it is one of the only businesses where, if business goes down, that’s a good thing. Hopefully it means those needs are being met elsewhere. But this is a tough one.”

Current enrollment has slipped to just 27 students, Johnson said, down from its past levels of between 35-55 students; in recent years, enrollment has hovered in the “upper-20s and lower-30s,” he said.

“In order to provide the services we provide, that is just not sustainable. We can’t do it with fewer than 30 students,” Johnson said.

As one of the first nonprofit therapeutic, coeducational boarding schools in the country, the mission at Summit Prep is predicated on helping adolescents heal in a natural environment, 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.

Executive Director Todd Fiske said the school is set to hold its final graduation on May 1, with the majority of students currently on campus matriculating out of the program.

“With all other students and families, our clinical team will be working closely to help facilitate the selection of and transition to alternative options as of May 1,” Fiske said. “We will ensure that all required staffing remains in place and our academic, therapeutic and residential work continues through the end of the block. Our primary goal over the next months, as always, is the safety of our students and the school.”

Board Chair Alex Habib, who co-founded the program alongside Johnson, said Summit has helped nearly 1,000 students and their families in times of crisis since opening. However, he said Summit’s underlying relation model has proliferated across the country, with most states enacting regulations codifying best practices that serve to protect the safety and wellbeing of students.

“With refinement of programs from wilderness to residential treatment centers, even the average stay has been significantly reduced,” Habib said in a statement. “Over the past months and years despite great efforts, we have been faced with the challenge of keeping enrollment at a sustainable level. In many ways, our original goals as founders have been accomplished, and there are so many great alternative programs much closer to homes.”

The idea for Summit dates back to when Habib and Johnson were college roommates at Trinity College in Illinois, and frequently discussed their desire to help kids.

“Our Summit model was designed to help build structure, navigate relationships, overcome social difficulties, rebound from academic failure, resolve conflict with parents, eliminate dangerous behaviors, develop emotional stability and assist in regaining a direction and purpose in life,” Johnson, who outlined the groundbreaking model in his book, “An Upward Spiral,” said.

His voice cracking with emotion, Johnson said none of the work at Summit would have been possible without the school’s team and staff members dedicated to the work.

“We have such a great team of staff,” Johnson said. “In addition to the students, they really are what makes Summit, Summit. They have dedicated their lives to these kids and their families, and while this is not going to be an easy transition, I think I speak for everyone in saying what an honor it has been having the opportunity to work with the kids and their families for so many years.”

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