HELENA – East Helena School District leaders are still planning to open their new high school building in the fall of 2020, but they’re now planning to start their first class of freshmen one year before that.
The district is now aiming to keep this year’s eighth-graders at East Valley Middle School next year, as the East Helena high school’s first ninth-grade class. They will use five new classrooms that were added to the middle school over the summer.
Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said they only recently realized they might be able to move the high school’s start date up. The district added classrooms at East Valley to prepare for future growth in the student population, but they aren’t currently being used. Whitmoyer said East Valley principal Dan Rispens suggested, if they reorganized their class periods, they might have enough space to host an additional grade level next year.
“Once we established that there was room, the very next conversation was with the school board, and the school board said ‘Let’s move that forward,’” said Whitmoyer.
The district expects about 125 students to be part of the first freshman class, starting in August 2019. While they will remain in the middle school building, Whitmoyer said they will be administered separately, as the new high school. He expects to start hiring high school teachers this spring, as well as possibly hiring a principal or assistant principal.
Whitmoyer said East Helena residents like the education their children are receiving now, and they voted to support that when they approved building a local high school. He said starting the high school at East Valley will allow the new staff members to learn about and maintain that existing school culture.
“When they move into the high school, the culture that we’ve established will go with them,” he said. “So we don’t end up with a brand-new culture and something totally different, we end up with the same culture that our community’s come to know and love.”
Once the high school building is finished in 2020, two grades will move in. The other two grades will move one year at a time, as previously agreed with the Helena School District. The first class will graduate in the spring of 2023.
Whitmoyer said, on Sept. 24, district teachers and staff will hold a meeting where they’ll start discussing how to put together a full four-year curriculum for the new school.
“To be ready for 2023, this school district has to launch its research and begin its planning now,” he said.
Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream confirmed Thursday that he has discussed the East Helena district’s new plan with administrators. He said they won’t be able determine exactly how Helena schools will be affected until later in the school year, when students officially decide whether to attend the new high school or remain in the Helena School District. However, he doesn’t expect the change will affect his district’s overall staffing.
Ream said he’s confident in what the Helena School District offers, but that he expects the East Helena School District will also put together a quality program.
“It’s a tough choice for kids and parents, and that’s when kids and parents win,” he said.
Whitmoyer said he hopes the East Helena and Helena school boards can work together over the coming months. He said his district has a lot to learn from Helena about how to operate a high school.
“We don’t want to be Helena High East, but at the same time, what we want to do is cherry-pick the very best practices at Helena High and emulate those in East Helena,” he said.