Home on the range
John Santa ’66 and Carol Minnick Santa ’66 transform education on a rustic, 500-acre Montana ranch.
If Carol Santa weren’t able to run fast, she might not have wed John Santa.
“We met in class and running from class to lunch,” Carol remembered. “We were always first and second in the lunch line. I was a track star in high school, so I could keep up with John.”
— John Santa ’66
The former psychology majors who have both had numerous career transformations – from professors to practicing psychologists, to high school teachers, to entrepreneurs – now run Montana Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for troubled teenagers. The innovative couple said it was Whitman that changed their lives.
“We got married the middle of our junior year, which is cool. It was also scandalous. We ran away and got married by the justice of the peace in Idaho,” Carol said.
In addition to falling in love there, Whitman was where they grew up.
“Whitman is a supportive community,” John said. “Whitman gave us a foundation where we developed and gained confidence in our abilities, both as students and scholars. Whitman gives you a sense of yourself.”
Carol is from Walla Walla, so she wasn’t excited to be going to school so close to home. However, she echoed her husband and said Whitman also enabled her to mature.
“I was a pretty immature Walla Walla kid. At Whitman I had small classes, and it was at Whitman where I learned that I was smart,” Carol said.
“I learned how to be a leader. I also gained confidence in myself as a scholar, and Whitman whetted my appetite to become a lifelong learner.”
Montana Academy boys play soccer at the ranch. The academy places a great emphasis on having the students participate in sports.
This appetite led Carol to eventually earn a Ph.D. in education from Temple University. The experience she gained writing her undergraduate thesis at Whitman, she said, prepared her for the scholarly process of obtaining her Ph.D.
“Whitman shows students that the world is open to you and you can go forth. It gave me the confidence that has allowed me to continue reinventing myself throughout my life.”
John and Carol underwent a career metamorphosis 16 years ago when they decided to quit their day jobs and open Montana Academy. The impetus to seek out a new way to educate troubled teenagers came about after their own son began drifting. They enrolled him in an alternative school, which resulted in a positive outcome for him, but John and Carol felt that with their backgrounds in education and psychology, they could do better by creating a therapeutic school that provided not only counseling, but also top-notch academics.
The academy they created in 1997 started with students camping out in tents on a 500-acre ranch. It has now transformed into a boarding school with 70 kids who come from as far away as Paris and Singapore.
What separates Montana Academy from other alternative schools is its staff-to-student ratio – better than 1:1. John and Carol now count 85 staff members, from teachers and counselors to therapists and outdoor leaders. Montana Academy also combines well-trained clinicians and an effective therapeutic program with a challenging prep school.
Boys stay in this dorm at Montana Academy. When students first arrive at the academy, they are assigned to teams. As in a family, the team becomes central to a student’s daily life.
“The kids who attend our school are incredibly bright,” Carol said. “They have all this intelligence but have a difficult time fitting in with society and all its pressures.” The students enrolled at Montana Academy “find the space to literally unplug from the media world in a safe environment.”
Many of the students at Montana Academy arrive with problems such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and substance abuse. The academy helps these students by offering them a sheltered place to get clinical treatment, therapy and access to an ambitious academic program.
“What we have come to learn is that most of the problems adolescents face are misunderstood by conventional psychology,” John said.
“Kids come here with all sorts of diagnoses. Modern psychology addresses these issues with medication. We start as good psychologists and psychiatrists, but in an environment that is safe. We take away the distractions, all that interferes with adolescents growing up. We then give our students the space, time and understanding to help them grow.”
John and Carol said that Montana Academy creates a holistic environment with a culture and a nurturing, structured community where the students learn by doing.
“It’s very much like Whitman,” he said.
The success rate of Montana Academy reveals that John and Carol’s vision has succeeded. Most of the students reside at the boarding school for 18 months to two years. The vast majority of them arrive riding a cocktail of meds, but about 75 percent of all students depart taking no medication.
“We give them structure and calmness. They receive teaching, therapy and lots of recreation, and we find their symptoms disappear pretty quickly,” John said.
John and Carol estimate that 95 percent of Montana Academy students go to college. In fact, six academy graduates currently attend Whitman.
“We encourage kids to go to liberal arts schools,” Carol said. “Our students need time to discover who they are and what they love.”
John also encourages students to attend a liberal arts college like Whitman.
“The world is rapidly changing and students need a broad education to understand this world. The liberal arts prepare students to become adults in a time where they’re likely to change their career three or four times. Like Carol and I have done.”
Carol added, “Whitman provides students with a rich background of knowledge to become better citizens. The liberal arts education helps kids spread their wings.”
And thanks to Montana Academy, troubled adolescents have the opportunity to overcome their difficulties and find their ways to colleges like Whitman.