One of three founding objectives of the Montana Academy Foundation (MAF) is to foster research that would expand the national conversation about adolescent maturation and the consequences of delayed or interrupted maturation. The Foundation invests in research efforts that will help explain why and how children fall into self-destructive patterns, and it supports demonstration projects that attempt to apply those principles to real world situations. The Foundation also actively seeks collaborative relationships with a variety of organizations working in the field of character development and behavioral health in adolescents.
To date, the Foundation has funded four such projects.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE MONTANA ADOLESCENT MATURITY ASSESSMENT (MAMA)
By 2006, the clinical leadership of Montana Academy had recognized a distinct pattern in the dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes of many of the adolescents who had been placed under their care. Simply put, these teens had gotten stuck or delayed somewhere along the trajectory of normal emotional, psychological, and social development. Despite their chronological age, they remained immature and overwhelmed by the increasingly complex tasks of young adulthood. They became subject to significant, often debilitating anxiety and depression and sought relief or refuge in maladaptive coping mechanisms (e.g., substance abuse, oppositional behaviors, impulsive risk-taking).
Led by John McKinnon, MD, and John Santa, PhD, two of the founders of Montana Academy, a team of clinicians developed the Montana Adolescent Maturity Assessment (MAMA), a prototype measure of relative immaturity in adolescents. The MAMA makes it possible for therapists, teachers, and other professionals to track changes in a teenager’s level of maturity and to evaluate the impact of various interventions designed to address the problems of delayed or interrupted maturation.
The Foundation supported development of the MAMA by funding a part-time salary for a University of Montana graduate student to help administer tests to arriving families and to enter and organize the data. In comparisons of ratings by MA parents, teachers, therapists, and program staff, the MAMA demonstrated strong correlations, i.e., the MA parents and staff recognized much the same flawed “approach” in particular students and rated them similarly on the MAMA. In addition, ratings by mothers and fathers of the same students correlated strongly with one another. In short, the MAMA proved reliable among different raters and among different categories of raters. In addition, comparisons of parent MAMA ratings at enrollment and graduation revealed a dramatic change in maturity (MAMA) ratings over the course of treatment—an important finding and an indication that MAMA ratings reflect a conceptual “maturity” that changes as a student progresses in the MA program. These data demonstrated the reliability and validity of the MAMA in measuring adolescent maturity.
MAMA IN THE PUBLIC-SCHOOL SETTING
The MAMA results at Montana Academy were of great interest, but they represented a relatively small sample of teenagers enrolled at a private therapeutic high school in a remote valley in Montana. The next question needing an answer was: could MAMA ratings be used by teachers to measure relative maturity in an adolescent population in a conventional public high school?
In 2011, the Foundation supported an effort by Montana Academy to engage teachers at Flathead High School to complete MAMAs for students in English classes. In each grade, maturity (measured by the MAMA) was strongly associated with teachers’ ratings of students’ academic performance. After controlling for age and gender, students with the highest MAMA scores were rated as among the best-performing students academically. Students with the lowest MAMA scores were rated as among the lowest-performing students academically. Those students with middling MAMA scores were rated as among the middling students in terms of academic competence and performance. These findings, analyzed by Dr. Kevin Delucchi, a distinguished biostatistician at the University of California, San Francisco, have persisted in subsequent years of testing.
DEMONSTRATION PROJECT I – PROMISE ACADEMY
One of the most striking findings of the MAMA work in a conventional public school is the strong correlation between maturity scores and teachers’ ratings of academic performance. If this proves to be a causal relationship, which we hypothesize that it is, then the implications could be profound for parents trying to help children to excel in school and for schools trying to improve their students’ academic performance. This result would suggest that the way to improve our public and private schools is not to revise curricula or punish teachers for the short-term results of their students on content testing, but rather for parents and educators to promote adolescent maturity.
To explore this hypothesis, the Foundation in 2015 funded a one-year pilot program, in cooperation with Flathead High School, called Promise Academy. The faculty of the high school identified a dozen students at high risk of dropping out of school. These students and their families were invited to participate in a program overseen by a former faculty member at Montana Academy, who had recently been hired as a teacher at Flathead HS. The objective of Promise Academy was to take appropriate, relevant elements of the Montana Academy model and apply them, in the setting of a large public high school, with a small cohort of at-risk students. Evaluations by both participating students and staff were encouraging, but the program was hampered by constraints of scheduling and resources. Nonetheless, the Foundation continues to see this type of collaborative activity as an important dimension of its mission.
DEMONSTATION PROJECT II — THE ASCENT PROGRAM AT GLACIER HIGH SCHOOL
It has long been an aspiration of the Montana Academy Foundation (MAF) to explore ways that the Montana Academy model of promoting character development and maturity in troubled teenagers could be integrated into the experience of students in non-residential school communities. In April, 2018, the Board of Directors of the MAF approved a grant of $139,004 over two years to support a pilot project at Glacier High School in Kalispell, MT. The Ascent Program will focus on a group of twenty sophomores at very high risk of dropping our of school. Among the anticipated outcomes are decreased incidence of mental health issues, increased ability to set and achieve personal, social, and academic goals, and improved relationships with families, with peers, and with others in the larger community. Such outcomes could position the Ascent Program as a model for similar efforts at public high schools in Montana and beyond.