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Schools & Program Visits - Feb, 2002 Issue #90 

Monarch School
Heron, Montana
Ranel Hansen,
Admissions Director
877-955-2232 or 208-255-2232

Visited on February 11, 2002
Loi Eberle, M.A.,
Educational Consultant & Editor
Woodbury Reports

My impressions of Monarch School can best described by how I felt about the students as I prepared to leave their beautiful campus. The words ‘friendly’ and ‘good natured’ come to mind. The day I visited, the students were being orchestrated into a new schedule. Rather than being disruptive while waiting for a direction, they patiently sat in the living room, talking quietly. When I said my goodbyes after my visit, they interrupted their conversations to wish me well. I had spoken to many of them and found them to be friendly and considerate, both in their discussions with me and in their interactions with staff. Even when they were discussing, for example, a complaint about a grade on a project, there was a feeling of good will. I sensed their excitement about helping to create their school.

Monarch School is a small residential school in rural Western Montana. I was particularly lucky to visit on a day when the blue sky provided a brilliant backdrop to the glistening white mountains that graced the horizon in all directions. It was one of those drives where it seemed almost a burden to keep one’s eye on the road, the view was so spectacular. Two tail-wagging dogs greeted me as I got out of my car, accompanying me to the main building. Ranel Hanson, Admissions Director, led me to the administrative offices, which she joked, were intentionally small.

I was introduced to Larry Moony, who shares the dual role of Business Director and music teacher. His background in both areas was impressive, though we mostly discussed the various instruments he played and the upcoming student performances. Then we went upstairs where some of the students were having their turn preparing lunch with a staff member. It seemed like they were having a good time, stirring the pots and engaging in friendly conversation. The room quickly filled and the entire school sat down to eat with the staff at three large tables. That particular day two students of their 15 students were missing because they had gone off-campus to interact with the school’s consulting psychologist, Dr. Doug Ratell. Even though they had the opportunity to eat at a restaurant off campus, one student expressed disappointment because he was not able to eat the lunch he had helped to prepare. Their new culinary arts teacher, Dave Rookey, will have a lot of student enthusiasm to channel, which is good, since they plan to have a four-course “restaurant meal” on Saturday nights. Once we were all seated, we were asked to observe a minute of silence before the meal. I was told later that this was done in order to help the students to focus and slow down after the morning’s activities. After lunch the dishes magically disappeared as that day’s kitchen crew cleaned up.

Founder, Patrick McKenna and Ranel Hanson, then took me on a tour of the campus. Patrick explained that the school was based on the philosophy of “do to get”. Kids are not punished for inappropriate behavior, but if they want to participate in the fun activities, they have to “do to get.” This of course is a reflection of the type of student they have. They describe themselves as a “softer” program, for boys and girls 14 through 18. However, since the program lasts between 18 and 22 months, they do not usually accept students past their seventeenth birthday. They realize some of their students may not exactly be there voluntarily, yet the students do acknowledge the benefit of being at the school and have committed to following the agreements they are asked to observe when they arrive.

As we walked through the crunchy snow that sparkled in the sunlight, I saw the large flat places where various ponds were hidden. Sometimes the students skate on these ponds and at this time of year they cross country ski during the physical activity portion of each day. Every five weeks they participate in an adventure activity such as the four-day ski tour and campout in a cabin in the Selkirk Mountains from which they just returned. The students train every day for the five weeks preceding an adventure activity. Sea kayaking off the Olympic Peninsula is one of the future activities planned for the upcoming warmer months.

I was shown the wood structure where the small theatre and pottery studio will soon be completed. Patrick pointed out a house that was being remodeled so that a faculty member could move on campus. At the current time they have at least one high level counselor at the school at night along with an awake night staff. Currently, Program Director, Tim Earle and his family live in a house in the woods on the campus. As the school slowly expands, Patrick’s goal is to hire faculty who wish to make a long-term commitment to the vision of this school and desire to make it their home. Emphasis belongs on the word, “slowly” when discussing the expansion of the school. Patrick McKenna and Tim Earle want to make sure that they are meeting their current student’s needs before they expand to an eventual enrollment of 30 students.

We continued on our walk, passing another pond and admiring the large open space in the building that is soon to become the art studio. When we arrived at the beautiful log house that is being remodeled to become the new student lodge, I could understand everyone’s excitement! The building was beautiful, with a circular arrangement of windows capped by a tower that looked out on yet another pond. A new deck created an additional attractive vantage point for pond watching. It also had provided the opportunity for a girl who hadn’t been willing to even pick up a hammer when she arrived, to be able to proudly display her “carpenter’s belt” that had been earned during the deck construction process. I saw this same sense of pride when a female student showed me her bunk bed that she helped build out of large logs.

I was able to continue appreciating the vibrant blue sky by watching it through one of the large windows once we had returned from our walk and were back in the classroom. I observed that the students were working independently, either reading at the table or working through their coursework on one of the eight computers networked to Nova Net. When needed, they would receive help from the two teachers who circulated they would receive help from the two teachers who circulated among the students. This enabled some students, for example, to do pre-algebra, while others were working on pre-Calculus. With the addition of more teachers, plans are to include discussions, demonstrations and class projects to accompany the more individualized work. This will allow students to benefit from the large group interaction while still being able to work at their academic level.

The program is structured so that the student alternate between academic classes and a variety of classes in the creative arts such as drawing and painting, sculpture, ceramics, or drama. Students also develop skill on the musical instrument of their choice, participating in music lessons on an ongoing basis throughout their stay at the school.

Academic Director, Ron Mendenhall, explained, “creative arts are the backbone of the program.” This emphasis has resulted from Patrick McKenna and Tim Earle’s experience of the therapeutic value of the expressive arts. They understand the important role the creative process plays in building and living one’s dream, lessons Patrick feels he learned on the road to becoming the first Rocky Mountain Academy graduate. During this early education Patrick progressed from behaviors that would preclude his enrollment at Monarch School, to learning the discipline, accountability and communication skills that enabled him to inspire the creation of Monarch School.

This school has evolved from the Patrick McKenna and Tim Earle’s experiences of working and being raised according to principles of emotional growth education, combined with what they have learned from their own children’s experience with Waldorf Education, training in the performing arts and Suzuki Music Education. Monarch School, as far as I can see, is a vision in the making. Its students are not only getting to experience the excitement of building a dream, they are truly learning what it takes to persist through all the steps of the process.

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