HELENA – Education in rural Montana has charm, but also challenges that educators and students face every day. We traveled around western Montana this fall to sit in classrooms, visit with students and listen to what teachers and administrators are saying about their biggest hurdles; all to ensure these students get the best education possible.
Three Class C schools – Augusta, tucked alongside the Rocky Mountain Front; Hot Springs, in a remote part of the Flathead Indian Reservation; and Dutton/Brady, about 40 miles north of Great Falls on Interstate 15.
These schools like many others their size, face shrinking enrollment and budgets, higher graduation requirements and have an intense passion for creating lasting bonds.
Watch the full 30 minute piece here.
Part 1: Making connections with students
High school English class in the Dutton/Brady school sees full attendance when there are less than ten students.
On an October morning that brought early season snow, teacher Lisette Langdorf worried about her students’ safety commuting to class.
“I was thinking about you as I was driving, I should have just taken you with me,” she said to a student who trailed into class a few minutes late.
This is just one example of how there is a community feeling running through this rural school.
“Because the class sizes are smaller, we have easy conversations, those student-teacher conversations,” Langdorf explained.
She found herself teaching in Dutton after three years in Choteau. Langdorf grew up in Helena Public Schools and knew a AA District was not where she wanted to plant her teaching roots.
“I always knew I was going to be a teacher and I always knew I didn’t want to teach in Helena. I wanted something different,” she said with enthusiasm.
Dutton/Brady is just that – different. There are fewer students in the entire district than her high school.
“I wanted something smaller,” she said.
Smaller classes, smaller schools and smaller community; all are present in rural Montana.
Two hundred and fifty miles away, along the western edge of the Flathead Indian Reservation sits Hot Springs, Mont. While several mountain ranges separate Dutton and Hot Springs, the tight knit community feeling is the same.
“You know every single teacher and all of the administration so they’ll stop and they’ll talk to you and ask you how you’re doing,” explained Hot Springs Senior Stacy Gray.
Like the Dutton/Brady school, Hot Springs’ entire district sits on one property, with a covered walkway connecting the high school to the elementary.
Third grade teacher Alisha Pablo has taught in Hot Springs for 14 years. This was her first teaching job right out of college, and it’s been her only teaching job.
“Making relationships with kids is huge. If you can make a relationship with a kid, then you can get them to learn,” Pablo said with a smile on her face.
Wanting to make those connections with students runs through the entire building, from the lunch crew, all the way up to Superintendent Mike Perry.
“I can stand out in the morning and greet the kids off the bus and know every single one of them by name,” said Perry proudly.
He knows each name for the 74 students in the high school and with so few students, small class sizes come naturally. For Gray, that makes learning easier.
“If you had any questions you go in and talk to her any time and she’d explain it to you. If I was in a bigger school, I would have to either find a tutor or try and figure it out myself through the book,” the senior explained.
It’s that comfort in the classroom that is a thread connecting schools like Hot Springs and Dutton/Brady.
“The teachers have so much more time with you individually, I feel like I can ask any question i want any time it comes in my mind,” added Dutton/Brady Senior Aaron Infinger.
Infinger knows what it’s like to go to bigger schools. He started in Great Falls, went to Dutton/Brady, then Butte, back to Great Falls and now, he’s chosen to return to Dutton/Brady.
“I benefited from coming back here because there’s so many people that care about where you’re going,” he said.
Knowing the teachers and staff care makes all the difference to him, as well.
“You just have that feeling, like it’s not always said, but inside, you know, ‘Oh if I start slipping up, someone is going to say something to me, so I gotta keep truckin’ along’,” Infinger said.
For Langdorf, that’s exactly what she wants her students to know.
“This is your education, let me help you. I don’t want you feel like you’re falling through the cracks,” she passionately said.
Part 2: Smaller budgets; high academic standards
The Montana Board of Public Education sets graduation requirements for Montana public schools. The minimum requirement to graduate from high school in the state is 20 credits. Hot Springs, Augusta and Dutton/Brady High Schools require more of their students. Below is a chart listing each school’s exact requirement.
All three of these schools require three years of math; one year above the state set requirement. The Montana Rural High School Association did a study with 86 percent school participation and found that only 19 percent of Class C schools have a two year math requirement, while 57 percent of Class A schools do.
So why do smallest schools in Montana have some of the highest requirements?
“Most people in rural Montana know that the students aren’t going to come back here. There’s no way to make a living,” explained Hot Springs Superintendent Mike Perry. “Whether they go to a four year university, a trade school or not, they want them to be able to have that choice.”
The Superintendent of Dutton/Brady Schools D.K. Brooks feels the same, “the students need that to go on and be successful.”
Brooks explained the graduation requirements were set before he took over eight years ago, but believes their small size makes it easier to implement new guidelines.
“We have that flexibility to change and adapt, perhaps more so than a AA school or an A school,” he said.
But asking a lot of the students also means asking a lot of their already stretched staff.
“Most of the teachers are pulling double duty,” Brooks said with disappointment.
“When you’re in a small school, we’re talking most of our teachers then have one planning period, and what we call seven preps, so seven different classes that they’re prepping for during the day,” Mike Perry added. “It’s a tough load.”
And small classes don’t change that.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching biology to 30 kids or teaching biology to ten kids. You’re still teaching the class and you still need to prep for it,” Perry said adamantly.
But Augusta Superintendent Matt Genger said the class sizes do make it easier for these students to find success at all ends of the learning curve.
“We’re able to accelerate the student in class, no matter what class that is, accelerate. And at the same time because of the low number, we can remediate the child that needs remediation,” he said.
Hot Springs Third Grade Teacher Alisha Pablo realizes her district’s requirements are above the state minimum, but believes it’s a good thing.
“I think if you have higher expectations, they’ll meet them. They’ll exceed them,” she said. “So why not set it high.”
In Dutton/Brady, during the day Ms. Langdorf teaches her students English, but her job doesn’t stop there.
“You’re not only the English teacher, but you’re the yearbook advisor, you’re the newspaper advisor, you’re going to coach speech and drama and you’re going to do the school play,” she exclaimed. “All of those things I’m doing this year.”
Neither does Hot Springs’ Superintendent Mike Perry’s.
“We don’t have many sub drivers, so two of the main sub bus drivers are the custodian and myself,” he said
Superintendent, bus driver, teacher, coach and advisor; it’s a lot of responsibilities for a few people. That can’t be found in many places, but it is found in Montana’s rural schools.
“It’s just hard work and you do it because, you do it for the kids,” Pablo said.
These rigorous graduation expectations are simplified with the dedication of everyone in these classrooms.
“If students are struggling, we know that. We encourage them to seek extra help, do extra work, whatever it takes to get their grades up and learn and graduate,” Superintendent Brooks added.
And for those 29 high school students in Dutton/Brady, it works.
“I always try to come in early in the morning and stay after school so I can be available.
Whether they want it or not, I’m here for them,” Langdorf said.
The graduation rate?
“I can tell you right off the top of my head, 100 percent,” Brooks said without question. “Students are expected to graduate.”
Part 3: Consolidation and looking to the future
The everyday lives of these students and educators are difficult as they face an ever changing future.
Consolidation is an idea that has been discussed in rural areas and has happened in a few of communities, although some superintendents believe it’s not an ideal situation for the students or staff.
When enrollment continues to dwindle, the thought of consolidating with another district becomes reality.
But these schools are more than just a place of learning and losing them would impact more than just the students.
“It is the heart of the community; it’s the pulse of the community,” explained Augusta School District Superintendent Matt Genger.
So much so that on a cold, windy day in Augusta, the football team had a packed stands cheering them on.
“Just because I don’t have children here, doesn’t mean I don’t know the kids on the field,” exclaimed an Augusta Football fan. “This is what we do in small towns.”
Consolidation has not happened to Augusta but in 2005, it did with Dutton and Brady and Superintendent D.K. Brooks is still concerned.
“We’re constantly concerned about enrollment,” he said. “At some point, we may have to consolidate. Would it be Power, ten miles down the road, or would it be with Choteau 22 miles to the west, we don’t know.”
An unknown feeling that is also shared in Hot Springs.
“So now you’re going to split up the district and who knows where the kids are going to go,” added Hot Springs Superintendent Mike Perry.
Not only do these school leaders not know what would happen to their students, the futures of the communities are uncertain as well.
“Should it go away…who knows? There might be one or two business that stay in operation on Main Street, but it’s one of those thoughts that we don’t like to think about,” Brooks said.
From Genger’s perspective, he said, “You’d see a loss of population and it wouldn’t take long either.”
These schools have teachers who pulling double and sometimes triple duty are teaching multiple grades and subjects. While Hot Springs Superintendent Mike Perry sees that as a positive thing for students, it’s concerning as an administrator.
“The chances of us finding another family consumer science/art teacher are probably extremely slim,” said Perry with concern. “So that means that when she retires, one of those programs is probably going to go away.”
In Hot Springs, some families work on ranches but there is not a major employer in the area; like so many of these small Montana towns.
“It’s like we’re setting ourselves up to be a smaller community as we graduate students and they leave to find other occupations,” Perry disappointingly said.
Day to day, the challenges of education in rural Montana are dynamic and unpredictable.
But the people show up to the schools because they want to be there.
“It’s exactly what I think I envisioned education to be,” said Hot Springs 3rd Grade Teacher Alisha Pablo, with joy.
Part 4: Funding frets and community issues
Driving through Hot Springs, a community with around 550 people, the challenges can be seen everywhere you look.
“There’s no way to make a living here,” said Hot Springs Superintendent Mike Perry. “This right here is where we had a family that was living..on this..I guess I would call it a compound. But you can see a couple trailers, an RV and that school bus over there.”
The economic disparities in a small community like this can strain the students, making the school day even more important.
“Despite knowing what’s going on at home, there’s not much we can do about it. So all we can do is make sure that when they’re here at school, they know that they’re loved and cared about,” Perry said emotionally.
In the classroom, teachers are the leaders and Perry added, “Our staff are the number one thing we have. There’s no bigger impact on our students than our teachers.”
Finding those teachers who will fit into these rural, sometimes isolated communities can be quite problematic.
“This last year we needed both a science teacher and an English teacher and an elementary teacher. We were able to fill them all, I think with fantastic teachers, so we’ve been lucky, cross our fingers,” Perry added.
But he recognized he was fortunate to fill those positions before the school year began because the Dutton/Brady School District was not quite as lucky.
“The business teacher from last year retired. We had three applications for that position, and they all turned us down,” said a disappointed Superintendent of Dutton/Brady Schools D.K. Brooks.
Each school in Montana gets what’s called basic entitlement, or a set amount of money given to every district.
“The base funding formula from the state, I think, needs some changes,” said Augusta Superintendent Matt Genger.
Then there is the average number belonging, or ANB funding which equates to how much the district gets for each student.
For kindergarten through sixth grade, that number is $5,519 per student and seventh through 12th grade that number is $7,065.
Matt Genger is the football coach, English teacher and is the superintendent of Augusta schools.
He said when it comes to the cost of running a school, location doesn’t matter.
“A teacher cost so much, whether the teacher is in Augusta, Fairfield, Choteau, Dutton/Brady, it all cost relatively the same to hiring that one teacher,” Genger explained. “So the funding formula, I don’t believe addresses that.”
Unlike other rural schools, the Augusta district has seen enrollment growth. The last three years the K-12 district has seen enrollment steadily increase from 84 students in 2014 to 99 in 2016.
Hot Springs has seen more dramatic, unpredictable changes over the years.
“Two years ago to last year, we had an increase in 50 students,” Perry said.
While 50 students in an entire might not seem like a significant increase, it hits these schools substantially.
“We’re talking about staff to cover 50 extra students, we’re talking about books and materials, and our budget is based on the prior numbers so we didn’t have the money,” explained Perry frankly.
Flash forward to the next year, “Now you show up to school minus 40 students,” Perry said.
This year Perry said there are 74 students, but, “Six years from now we’re slated to have 43,” he added.
These large swings in enrollment numbers really challenge Perry and the other superintendents.
“The last couple of years have been a little bit tough when it comes to budgeting here,” Perry said with frustration.
But bottom line, Genger said, “There are certain costs that cost everybody the same.”
Enrollment numbers are always changing and so are the other sources of funding.
“What happened in the legislative session this past spring, certain grants that the state had funded in the past, were passed onto the local taxpayer,” said Dutton/Brady Superintendent D.K. Brooks.
Brooks is referring to Senate Bill 261 which outlines cuts to these block grants administered by the Office of Public Instruction if certain benchmarks were not met with tax revenue.
With grants in question, Hot Springs Superintendent Perry brings it back to the number of students in the district.
“Money is based on enrollment. So even though we have to offer the same classes, we’re getting less money for the same thing,” he explained.
If there is another downswing in student enrollment, Perry said the future remains unknown.
“If it’s either I can pay for it or I can’t…you know, programs go away.”
But cutting programs to save money, could end up costing these schools.
“So not only are you losing numbers based on just attrition in the community, now you’ve got families taking their kids somewhere else because you can no longer offer their kids the rich education that they want for them,” explained Perry.
Question and Answer with Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction
Frost: There are more class C schools than anything else combined, two, three times as many class C schools. So it seems like people like living in rural Montana. Why do you think that way of life is so attractive to so many people?
Elsie: Ahhhh, I think it is the backbone of who we were in Montana, and with the new Census coming out, it might be who we still are. I believe in schools, especially, there is so
much that can be given when you have a smaller class size, and when you have an energetic teacher and you have the leader of the district, whether it be from the school board or where ever the community’s vision is, I believe that schools can mirror that, and say this is what we can offer you.
Frost: I know that the small class size was one of the biggest reasons so many of these teachers loved teaching in these small schools, because they have that interaction. Why do you think that’s so important for students to get that interaction?
Elsie: There’s so much more you can do to personalize learning. We had a little bit of a discussion on how that might be the method of the future to make sure that constitutional opportunity is given to every student in Montana. Of course if you have that one on one instruction, you can find out the strengths of the student and make sure then those strengths are aligned with what the curriculum could be and then fulfill the standard and then of course that student is given everything they have to become who they want to be.
Frost: These rural schools, their numbers continue to drop and drop and they fluctuate from year to year which makes it hard to budget for when it’s based on the previous year for their budget. Ideally, what would you like to see used for funding and budgeting purposes?
Elsie: Well I believe what we do really well in Montana is we base it on the student, that’s what the whole purpose is, but it is extremely delicate because to be able to teach a child, or any student within our K-12 system, the majority of the monies go toward the teacher, and they should, they should. The other part of this is the timing, and you hit it right on it, it’s not accurate. I mean the timing of when a student moves and when a student comes into the district, there’s quite a lot of turnover. But we can’t continue doing it the same way every time, and expecting different results.
Frost: Now one of the concerns from one of the teachers I spoke with was the fact that you know, they’re expected to provide X,Y and Z to their students, which some of them are the same as the B, A and AA as far as classes and offerings, but their ANB funding is significantly less due to their enrollment numbers and the expectations are still the same. How do you think that’s possible?
Elsie: The expectations in my mind, equate to accreditation. And accreditation has been around for schools for a length of time. It’s looked at an input model, in other words how many students do you have per that you have to have for a program or that you have to have per instructor. So that input model is something that I think that….we’re evolving more toward an output model. That’s what is the student receiving with all the things that are given to a school. Then you can see well maybe in a larger school, there might be more opportunities because it’s the bigger scale model versus the smaller scale model. So what I’m in control of at the state level is looking at that accreditation, it’s that input. So these are also things that are put in statutes, so it would be a collaboration with the legislature and all of those are what drive our funding formulas that then equate to what that classroom teacher and what the leader in the district are talking about.
Frost: All of the schools that I’ve spent some time looking at, their graduation requirements are 24, 25 credits to graduate and they’re a lot higher than some of the AA schools across Montana. Why do you think that’s the case?
Elsie: I think they allow the opportunity for their experienced teachers to be able to teach. There are not distractions I think, there are less distractions in rural Montana than there would be in urban Montana.
Frost: I know that local control is a big thing for you, do you feel rural schools are given enough support at the state level to control themselves locally?
Elsie: Ohhh….in my mind, it’s about less regulation and more service and more support about what they might need. The larger districts of course might have the personnel because of their budget; they might have personnel that would be able to reach out for a grant. They might have someone that would be able to get a report into the state that the fed might require. So what my job is here at the level is to do that equalization and say ‘If you can’t, I can surely help.’
Frost: When you drive into a town, you see the school and it has the town name on it, and that might be the only thing that says it. But when it comes to enrollment numbers and the decreasing populations in these small towns, consolidation becomes an issue and some schools are forced to consolidate. Meaning a town loses their identity when they lose their school. What do you think about consolidation and how do you think that impacts the students involved?
Elsie: As a legislator for 12 years, I did not support forced consolidation. But there should be a pathway for augmenting a school meaning that maybe a community or a couple of communities may want to get together and say, ‘Well let’s go ahead and do our, serve our k-8 students here in this community and then we’ll do our high school here. The words forced and consolidation don’t work in a local control state and in a pathway that I would like to see great education for each child. But to say that it comes from a state level would be something that I think is not part of Montana. We do believe that individuals should have a pathway for their individual success.
Frost: Looking at the next five, ten years down the line, where do you see small communities and small schools in terms of enrollment, funding problems, do you see any potential changes happening?
Elsie: Well….right now if I were to go from here and have a crystal ball…I think if I could change anything to deal with the timing on how schools get funded. I don’t know the mechanism of doing that, but how they get funded to the reality of who is sitting in their classrooms. I think that would be something that i would love to offer to them so they can have actual dollar to actual student needs. So we need to create a system that’s going to be more for the future and it can’t be based on what we’ve always done.