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Schools & Program Visits - Oct, 2000 Issue #74 

Condon, Montana
John Mercer, School Head

Lon’s Visit: August 29, 2000

It was immediately apparent that major changes have occurred at Mission Mountain School since my daughter graduated from there six years ago. The gravel driveway had been paved, and a large metal barn occupied what had been a grassy field. The same buildings were still there, but many of the cottages had a new fresh look, some with extensive remodeling.

The changes went much deeper than just the physical appearance. In virtually all aspects of the school, both major and subtle changes have been made, though some things remained substantially the same. For example, it is still an all-girl school, the school maintained its safe, comfortable feeling. Also, it was still possible to distinguish the new girls from those who had been there longer, simply by looking at their eyes and how they carried themselves, a strong indication that good things were happening in the girls’ lives. The dorms were neat and clean with a lot of color and coziness in the rooms conveyed through stuffed animals on the beds, pictures on the walls and mementos on the dressers.

It has grown from about 20 girls six years ago to its current enrollment of 35. It is obvious almost doubling in size is going to require a different approach. Twenty girls can be managed like a small family, 35 students have to be managed as a small school. This has some important implications, such as the greater variety both in the program as well as in academics that results from a larger numbers of students. Another implication is the increased likelihood that a girl will be able to hide among the larger numbers of students and not get the help she needs. This requires the staff to be even more sensitive and vigilant to individual needs.

The larger enrollment allows for an extensive equine program. The girls use the big metal barn to work with their current large quantity of horses, both to learn riding and show techniques, as well as for equine therapy. Staff has taken the EAGADS (Equine Assisted Growth and Development Seminars) training during which they were taught to use horses as a tool for emotional growth and learning.

The academic program was formerly basic and adequate; now it is impressive. Not only do the girls have a language (Spanish) in their curriculum, they also, with the addition of Doug McBroom as a science teacher, are now one of the few high schools in the nation that is doing DNA study and research. McBroom, a former employee of the National Institute of Health, is collaborating with his former colleagues and his current Mission Mountain students to do some DNA research. As a result, his students are learning to assist in ongoing research that is currently being coordinated by the national scientific community. I had the opportunity to observe one of the experiments a student was doing under the supervision of McBroom. The sophisticated equipment they were using was as high tech as that found in virtually any other high school classroom in the country. The specific experiment involved comparing the DNA signatures of two different species of young and mature trees commonly found in Montana. Since my last science course was taken many years ago, I had to accept their word that they knew what they were doing! The staff still feels their strength is in working with addiction problems. Most of the girls arrive at the program with eating problems, either due to overeating or under eating; so all the girls are put on a strict personal food program. They emphasize that full-blown anorexia or bulimia is beyond their capacity, but once a girl has been successfully treated for this disorder, they are an appropriate aftercare school. Most of the girls in this program have been in, or gravitate towards abusive relationships, and the school feels they can effectively work on the consequent attachment disruptions and problems with such relationships. Thinking errors are also a common characteristic that is present in the girls when they enroll.

Structure, defined as immediate and appropriate consequences for one’s actions, is still tight, but there were some signs the staff had instituted rules to establish better control. I first sensed this while eating lunch with the girls. I noticed they were a little quieter, or more subdued than I expected. I learned that currently they sit in a horseshoe arrangement with each girl sitting in a staff-assigned seat. Most of the girls’ conversations were about assigned subjects such as what they were getting out of the school, with each girl speaking one at a time. Perhaps some of this control was necessary since the school had just graduated a large number of older girls who had been leaders in the community. Possibly until some of the younger girls took on the mantle of leadership, some additional control was needed as a substitute for the temporarily weaker positive peer culture. But to me, it was a significant change from the days when the school might cancel the day’s scheduled activities to take advantage of weather or the students’ mood, in order to spontaneously go biking or skiing or do some other activity that seemed needed at the time.

The staff still envisions their school as a metaphor for life. Many of the conversations between the staff and the girls are framed in the context of the girls’ “journey” or “quest.” The challenges the girls face as a result of what life brings their way, or what they find within themselves, are portrayed as the “dragons” they must conquer. I saw this presented very clearly as the search for a “holy grail” in the skit the girls had written and presented as part of my daughter’s graduation ceremony six years ago. These metaphors are still used both in the school’s therapeutic work and as a way to present the philosophy of the school.

Another change is in accord with the natural evolution of any organization. Six years ago, the original founders did virtually all the work with the girls. With increased staff, and more time under their belt, the founders are backing off a little in the day-to-day operations and are allowing the staff they supervise to take more responsibility. Of course different personalities will produce some differences in approach that are still aligned with the school’s philosophy.

Graduation used to be a major event in the school. The staff, however, found the energy put into that three-day event could be put to better use in other activities, so graduations have been de-emphasized. Each graduate still receives recognition of the important milestone of her graduation from high school. Every child needs a ceremonial way of acknowledging the completion of a program like Mission Mountain that is designed to sharply redirect the girls’ lives into more positive and constructive ways.

Mission Mountain School is still a quality school, doing marvelous things for the girls they enroll. The changes I have talked about are just indications of a difference, and are not necessarily better or worse than the school I remember from six years ago. Perhaps the students with whom they work best are a little different; perhaps students’ needs have changed some. Maybe these changes reflect a natural evolution that will always happen over time in any human institution that is based first and foremost on meeting the needs of their students.

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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