High school taught Madison Wallack how to overcome
Madison Wallack struggled after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Flathead County, but turned her academic career around after a stint with the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. She graduated in January, a semester ahead of many of her peers. (Courtesy photo)
Daily Inter Lake | June 2, 2022 12:00 AM
Madison Wallack sucks in a deep breath as she thinks back on her high school career.
Freshman year at Flathead High School went well, she says, smooth even. Then the pandemic hit. After that it got hard.
“It was a rough ride,” she recalls. “Sophomore year was the hardest, because Covid shut down the schools. Online classes were pretty difficult for me; I’m an in-person learner.”
Falling in with the wrong crowd didn’t help much. Neither did getting into trouble.
But things began turning around during her junior year. Wallack spent the first half of 2021 not in Kalispell, but Dillon, where she was enrolled in the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. A structured, residential program for at-risk teenagers on the campus of the University of Montana Western, the academy touts its high-stress, high-tempo approach to getting students back on track.
Now, a little more than a year later, Wallack holds a high school diploma, having graduated from Flathead High School a semester ahead of most of her peers, and has begun taking classes at Flathead Valley Community College when she’s not working.
“We all kind of get off track and lose our way at times — it’s what you do when that happens,” says Lisa Sears, Wallack’s counselor at Flathead High. “She didn’t just come back, she came back and excelled and we’re proud of her.”
NOT THAT it was easy. Wallack remembers struggling to adjust to the academy. But she put one day together and then another, and before long she realized it was working for her. She resolved to hang tough.
“That was a really difficult time for me. It was something I didn’t want to do,” she says. “But as soon as I got down there, as the days went on, it got easier for me. I accepted that I was there and didn’t give up.”
Her aunt, Mandi Deaton, who adopted Wallack along with her siblings, recalls the change.
“I think when she first got dropped off she was still in a [negative] head space: You’re ditching me for six months or getting rid of me,” Deaton says. “She just needed to know that she could do it. It didn’t take but six weeks or so before we started hearing the positive side of it.”
“Everybody knew she could do it, it was just whether or not she could believe in herself,” Deaton adds.
Returning to Flathead proved the next major challenge. There’s a risk of falling into old habits when students return from such a rigorous program, Sears acknowledges. Not Wallack, though, who juggled classes with an online credit recovery program.
“She came back and she not only engaged in high school for her senior year, but she graduated a semester early,” Sears says. “She went right into college classes the second half of senior year.”
Graduating early, from Wallack’s perspective, made sense as a way to keep her momentum rolling in the right direction. The years prior to the Montana Youth Challenge Academy had exposed her to her own “poor decision-making thoughts.”
“So graduating early was a good plan for that,” she says.
Deaton recalls being terrified as Wallack transitioned back into a traditional high school. Now, though, she struggles to find the words to describe how happy she is for he daughter.
“I didn’t even graduate from high school. I dropped out of Flathead,” she says. “My goal with my kids was to make sure they graduated and can do better than I did.”
“To say I’m proud is an understatement,” she adds.
Looking back, despite the adversity she experienced during her time in high school, Wallack says she came away with important lessons unrelated to earning a diploma. Resilience and adaptability are two. Blazing your own path is another.
“Don’t give up. Life is going to be hard — it’s not easy,” Wallack says. “From a standpoint of a person who has gone through some rough times and was able to turn it around and go back to high school and graduate early, it gets easier if you stick with how you want to do stuff and not how others want you to do it.”
Flathead High School will hold its commencement ceremony for the Class of 2022 on Friday, June 3. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for the ceremony which starts at 7 p.m. in the main gym. No tickets are required. About 349 students are expected to graduate. Flathead is located at 644 Fourth Ave. W., Kalispell.
News Editor Derrick Perkins can be reached at 758-4430 or firstname.lastname@example.org.