Students and a teacher work in a small group at Summit Preparatory School in Kalispell, Mont. David Reese photo
Montana school combines therapy, academic work for teens
BY DAVID REESE/Montana Living
Editor's Note: Summit Prep School closed in April 2020
Natalie's life, at age 15, was spiraling down in a series of bad relationships and drug abuse.
She was a smart kid, though, and her parents knew that. If only they could find a light that would open her heart to a healthier lifestyle and happiness. They found it at the Summit Preparatory School in Kalispell.
Set in the mountains west of Kalispell near Ashley Lake, Summit Preparatory School offers teenagers an alternative, college-preparatory high school that focuses on academics and therapeutic counseling.
Driving up the long dirt road west of Kalispell, through small farms and open fields, you see a country setting that is remote but idyllic. When you first see Summit Prep, it almost looks like a bed and breakfast or high-end private home. The lodge style buildings are centered around a courtyard, including a spacious dining area accented by a tall, river rock fireplace. At one end of the campus is a gymnasium and large swimming pool. Just up the road are both boys and girls dormitories.
At Summit Prep, students are mentored in personal issues but also given a
solid academic foundation for college study. It is not a boot camp, by any means, and the structure of the program is designed to promote positive personal introspection through the limiting of cell phones; internet sites such as My Space; and sexual relationships.
The non-profit school was founded by Alex Habib, Mark Hostetter, Rick Johnson and Jan Johnson and Summit opened in 2003. Rick Johnson and Alex Habib were college roommates who had always dreamed of
creating a program to help struggling adolescents.
Jan and Rick Johnson of Summit Preparatory School in Kalispell/Dave Reese photo
Building the school was a huge risk. Since most students arrive in a crisis situation, the school didn't have an established client list. Summit had the academic and clinical structures in place, just no students - yet. "You have to build it first," Rick Johnson said.
The students at Summit Preparatory School stay as long as they need. The typical stay is about 15 months, though some students stay as long as two years. Most students graduate high school and transition to college, while younger students move on to a traditional or private high school.
Johnson and his partners decided to start the school after managed health care drastically changed the way adolescents received treatment. Managed care, Johnson said, led to the demise of longer-term adolescent treatment, and shifted the focus to treating only acute medical issues in adolescents,
"and this meant you no longer had time to work with kids," Johnson said.
He had run a hospital clinical program in Illinois before becoming director of psychiatry services at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.
He was hired to be the first administrator at Pathways Treatment Center in Kalispell when Kalispell Regional Hospital purchased the operation about a decade ago.
MAKING PROGRESS IN THERAPY
Now in its sixth year, Summit Preparatory School is the only therapeutic boarding school in Montana that is accredited by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. Parents are a vital part of the students' success, and parental involvement is encouraged throughout the process. This includes clinical therapy sessions with the parents and their children.
Students at Summit are part of teams that live, eat, and recreate together. In many ways, the team concept resembles a family.
"It isn't just compliance with program rules, it's about forming healthy relationships," Rick Johnson said. The same-sex teams of eight to 10 students help the adolescents work on their personal identity.
"Co-ed activities help kids to learn how to be friends with members of the opposite sex.," Johnson said. Although the campus is co-educational, co-ed interactions are supervised.
The clinical method of counseling and structure at Summit was revamped two years ago. Johnson wanted to move away from the outdated model of not giving students freedom until they earn it, to a model of building relationships. "Now, we use engaging activities to form those relationships as soon as students arrive." Johnson said.
"The best way to boost self esteem and confidence in a child is to build on what they're passionate about."
A student at Summit Preparatory School climbs a climbing wall while an instructor guides him from belay./Dave Reese photo
FOR NATALIE, now 16, the curriculum and lifestyle at Summit have helped her become a better person. "I was out of control," she said, adding that she'd "probably be dead" if she had remained in California and maintained her unhealthy lifestyle. She'll return to her junior year in high school in California as a much different person.
She sees herself returning there and doing community service work, like volunteering at the Humane Society or Habitat for Humanity. While at Summit, Natalie and her team devised a jewelry business with profits going to a battered-women's shelter.
Olivia is another success story. She's a soft-spoken,15-year-old from California. Living in Montana without connection to the outside world was a shock, as was dealing with the weather. "Not having a cell phone or computer teaches you how to talk to people and make your own fun," she said.
The school has advantages in being remote; students don't have easy access to distractions, and the disconnection from their electronic devices forces them into dialogue with others. "Kids nowadays sleep with their cell phones and iPods," Rick Johnson said. "They're never out of touch."
Required dialogue with others actually helps the students develop a sense of self that doesn't always occur when a child is withdrawn into themselves or their electronic devices. "These distractions inhibit identity development," Johnson said. "This is huge."
IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY
Parents are part of the solution here. "We help parents reconnect with their child and create healthy structure within the family," Johnson said.
The style of teaching and counseling at Summit showed her a new outlook on life. "My reason for coming here was to learn how to have healthy relationships and friendships," Olivia said. "I've learned how to Communicate and tell people how I feel. I never would have had a relationship with my parents. Now it's one of those things I want to have."
Many of her bad habits were influenced by popular culture, starting at the time she played with Barbie dolls. Rap music, Olivia said, "doesn't send a
good message of what a lady or a woman should be."
During their stay at Summit, students are required to work in the kitchen - another effort to help simulate the home environment where everyone
On an October day in 2008, Tyler, a tall, lanky young man from Spokane, was working in the dish room after lunch. He explained how he had come to Summit Preparatory School. He had attended a wilderness program near Bozeman before coming to Summit. "It's not a lovey-dovey environment here all the time," he said, hinting that things can still be hard for a young person as they begin to develop self confidence. "It's a teen environment."
Before coming to Summit Prep School, Tyler was a failing student, did drugs and battled depression, he said. Tyler, 17, now says that after 13 months at Summit he has the social and emotional tools to deal with the real world.
"I'm just basically a totally different person," he said. He graduated in November and plans to attend college this winter. "My therapist has prepared me for a life on my own," he said.
A teacher at Summit Prep goes over a Spanish lesson. David Reese photo
Most importantly, perhaps, was his reconnection with his parents.
His former habits of lying to them and deceiving them are gone. "Now I can talk to them about anything I want," he said. "I know they love me and always will."
This is what Rick and Jan Johnson see as a success: a student prepared to move on to a healthy life with a solid set of values and skills. Many students arrive at Summit in a crisis situation, when all other options have failed, and the parents are forced to choose another path for their child. This often leads to feelings of guilt for the parents. Summit staff work with the parents and students in family therapy sessions. "We help parents recognize it's not their fault," Johnson said.
"YOU GAVE US OUR SON BACK."
— parent of student at Summit Preparatory School
Rick and Jan Johnson see the successes every day - in the classroom,
in the gymnasium, or in counseling sessions with one of the licensed therapists on staff. The successes come in different ways. A success might be a young woman engaging in healthy conversations and learning a better self image, or a young man accepting himself among his peers. Jan Johnson said students reconnecting with their parents is another significant measure of success. Jan explained how one parent described this transformation in their relationship with their previously estranged son.
The parent told Johnson, "you gave us our child back."