(HELENA) At Warren School in the Helena Valley, the front entrance is currently a construction site, with a wooden board covering a large gap in the brick wall.

“The area where I’m standing right now used to be our main entrance,” said principal Tim McMahon, standing in front of windows covered with plastic and masking tape.

The ongoing construction is the first step in the Helena School District’s plans to update the security and technology at ten of its elementary and middle schools. The district is paying for the projects with about $8 million from a $63 million bond issue Helena voters approved last year.

McMahon said work has been going on at Warren since August, before the school year even started.

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The largest change will be at the entrance, where a new enclosed vestibule will be built. Once a parent or other visitor comes in, they will have to push a buzzer to alert the school secretary. The secretary will let them into the front office, then decide whether to admit them into the school itself.

As part of the change, the front office was reconfigured to give the secretary a better view of the doors.

“Before, my secretary couldn’t see the entrance,” McMahon said. “We had no idea who was coming in and of the school.”

The remaining doors will be locked throughout the day, though keyless entry systems for employees will be built into them. Today, Helena schools each keep one door unlocked during school hours.

Warren is also receiving technological improvements. That includes a new phone system, to replace the school’s earlier system, which failed last summer. The school also has new electronic clocks that also can also be used as message boards and intercoms. In an emergency situation, administrators can lock down the school from a central location, then use the message boards to communicate quickly with every classroom.

“I’ll be able to run the reader boards and the clock system from my office, but the district also has the capability to send out a message across the entire district once this entire project is completed,” said McMahon.

Superintendent Jack Copps said the Helena School District is taking proactive steps to make sure students and staff are safe.

“We assume that everybody who comes to our schools are reputable,” he said. “We need to move away from that kind of thinking and make sure we understand that every day, a safety issue can arise, and they do arise periodically.”

Now, the district is getting ready to bring these improvements to the rest of its elementary and middle schools. Copps said leaders will start accepting bids later this month for upgrades at Helena Middle School, C.R. Anderson Middle School, Four Georgians Elementary and Rossiter Elementary. He said the contracts could be awarded next month.

“We will be doing most of the work when the kids aren’t there, during the summer months, because there is a significant disruption in some places,” Copps said.

McMahon agreed it can be inconvenient for the construction work to go on during a school year, but he said the end results will be worth any disruption.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s what’s best for kids, and it’s what’s best in our school,” he said.

Last year’s bond issue will fund three completely new elementary school buildings – Bryant, Central and Jim Darcy – that will also include improved security and technology.