By Ron VandenBoom
Matt, a 17-year-old student at the Anchor Academy for Boys, busied himself Tuesday heading up a team of three other students unloading a bus.
"I'm glad I came here because if it wasn't for this place, I'd probably be dead," he said. "I was into some bad stuff like gangs and drugs."
Matt has been with the academy for about a year and will soon be reunited with his parents in Texas.
"My dad is a minister and he wants me to take over as superintendent of the Sunday school classes when I get home," he said. "I don't know if I'm ready for that. I've got to work on it."
Matt said that when he first came to the academy he was two years behind in school. But the academy has a lot of what he calls "hard discipline," and he has managed to catch up on many of his school subjects and win a lot of awards. Matt will still need to complete his senior year of high school when he gets home, but now he believes he has the ability and the confidence to do it.
"I never really cared before about school and stuff," he said.
Matt is just one example of what the Anchor Academy is doing for troubled boys between 13 and 17 who are referred to the school's superintendent, Dennis McElwrath, by parents who, in most cases, have tried other solutions and are at wit's end.
"So many parents have tried every counseling program and all the state programs, anything that they can," McElwrath said. "They're down to their last resort."
More than 35 boys live at the academy, which moved the first contingent of 15 boys from Lewistown into its new 85-acre home a week ago. The academy will occupy the site of the old Havre Air Force Station 32 miles north of Havre. The remainder of the boys are currently traveling the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana performing in the academy's choir which, according to McElwrath, is one of the things they do during the summer to help raise funds to support the academy's operation.
McElwrath said the academy receives three to five calls every day from parents wanting to get their children into the academy.
"We turn down about 150 kids every month," McElwrath said. "And we don't even advertise. It's all by word of mouth."
McElwrath said the school has about a year waiting list, partly because he can only think of about 20 other programs throughout the United States similar to the academy. Parents who do manage to get their children in have to agree to keep their kids in the program for at least a year. The average stay for a student is one year and three months.
"I had a lot of punishment in the beginning," said James, another of the students. "But now things are getting better because I've adjusted to the program and the rules and things."
James has been in the program for slightly more than two months and describes his last phone conversation with his father as "rough." He said part of the reason he came to the academy is because he didn't show respect to his parents and they didn't want him around anymore. He also admits to having used drugs during the last year.
James accuses the school of feeding him too much, adding that he has gained weight since arriving.
"I want to become a preacher," he said of his future goals. "Sometimes I feel that it's God's will that I become a preacher."
Not all students manage to adjust to the rigors of the academy. One boy, David Luna of Modesto, Calif., was removed from the academy on May 9 by Fergus County sheriff's deputies after he was accused of striking Matt with a 20-pound barbell and threatening others with a knife. Luna was charged in adult court, where he pleaded not guilty and was taken to Billings for evaluation.
McElwrath said that during the six years he has been doing this kind of work he has never had anything like this happen.
"He was just determined to get out of the facility," McElwrath said. "It's completely uncommon and this individual will not be coming back."
One of the components that make the program successful, McElwrath said, is peer pressure and the use of student leaders.
"If we had all new kids in here we wouldn't have the organization, we wouldn't have the loyalty, we wouldn't have the impact that we do," he said.
About 80 percent of the older kids have earned some degree of trust and worked to get their lives straightened out, McElwrath said. "So they have a huge element of peer pressure that always works in their favor."
McElwrath said he would like to be able to keep some of the boys longer, but the entire goal of the program is to reunite families.
A final agreement has been reached between the academy and the owners of the old radar base Premium Pork of Montana. The details are now in the hands of the lawyers and, according to McElwrath, the official transfer of ownership will be completed soon. But a lot of work needs to be done before the old base is ready for its new occupants buildings need to be cleaned, and sleeping, eating, and educational areas need to be remodeled. In the meantime, the academy is leasing a building that was once a two-room school for the dependents of Air Force personnel. It is next to the base and has been converted into a home.
Much of the work preparing the old base for its new occupants will be done by the students, McElwrath said. What can't be done by the kids will be completed by professional contractors.
Having the students work is one of the things that fits well into the academy's overall program.
"We want properties that give us a lot of work to do with the guys," McElwrath said. "Part of our program is to teach them how to work to teach them how to do things that will build discipline. So having a property that we can work on fits our program very well."
McElwrath said the old base commissary will be used as an "open-bay" dormitory for the boys. The large room that once provided groceries and other items to airmen and their families is ideally suited to the academy's needs. The students sleep in bunk beds with a minimum of privacy, which reduces the chance the residents will get into mischief while at the same time creating a sense of camaraderie, he said. The room is also equipped with a bathroom for middle-of-the-night trips.
McElwrath said he wants to cut a doorway leading from the dormitory into a large open area that was once part of the noncommissioned officers' club. He plans to use the room as a dining area that can also double as a place for group entertainment or recreation.
Portions of the building to the north of the dining hall are ideally suited for classrooms, and the facility also contains a weight room and handball court. Showers and bathrooms are to the north of the dining hall.
The former airmen's dormitory on the main base will be converted into guest housing for visiting parents and other guests. The 14-room apartment complex resembles a small motel, and each apartment contains showers and a small kitchenette. All of the rooms need to be cleaned and refurbished.
The old motor pool building on the west side of the compound will still be used as a motor pool for academy vehicles and buses and also provide a place for the school's welding, shop and mechanics classes.
McElwrath is still thinking about what might be done with the old operations center and generator shed. One thing he does eventually want to see in one of the buildings is an indoor swimming pool.
The summer months are what McElwrath describes as a more relaxed time at the academy.
The typical day begins at 6:30 a.m. with personal hygiene, Bible reading and breakfast. After breakfast, the boys are assigned work details on the site that will eventually help meet the needs of the school and bring the facility up to code.
Lunch is a 12:30 p.m. and the boys continue with their chores until dinner at 5:30 p.m. After the evening meal, the students attend chapel and take their showers before having some free time before bed.
McElwrath said the kids will also get some "fun time" during the day when they take a break from work for a game of basketball or some other sport. The academy also plans outings for the boys during the summer. Some of the trips being considered include an excursion to the water slides at Columbia Falls, and a trip to Glacier National Park. Other activities may include renting the city pool for a swim or going on a picnic or a fishing trip.
"We try to surprise them a lot," McElwrath said.
The schedule during the school year starts at 5:30 a.m. with classes running from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.
McElwrath explained that the academy uses the Accelerated Christian Education Program.
"ACE is the kind of program that allows us to individualize instruction to each student," McElwrath said.
Boys will enter the academy at ages ranging from 13 to 17 and at all levels of education.
"We're dealing with kids here that have fallen through the cracks of the public school," he said. "Kids that weren't the "A" student and (probably) didn't get the attention and they ended up flunking out."
The academy will test the students when they first arrive to determine what holes they have in what McElwrath called "their educational foundation." The faculty will then work with the boys to fill the holes in that foundation and try to bring them up to a level where they should be for their age and grade level.
The students receive high school credit for their work, which can be transferred to their school at home when they leave. It is possible for some of the boys to graduate from the academy's program and at the same time earn a high school diploma. Most of the boys, however, will leave the academy before they are old enough to earn a diploma.
Anchor Academy is a non-profit corporation that depends entirely on contributions from parents, businesses, churches and private individuals. They have what McElwrath described as a "very open door policy."
"We invite anybody to come up," McElwrath said.
Meal times are 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. and McElwrath invites the community to join them for a meal or just drop by for a visit and a tour.
The academy is listed under the name of Hi-Line Baptist Church and McElwrath can be reached by calling 394-4454.