EAST HELENA – East Helena’s newest elementary school is almost ready to welcome students.
Starting Aug. 29, Prickly Pear Elementary School, off Valley Drive, will play host to eight classes each of first-graders and second-graders.
“What I really look forward to is seeing our little kids enter this building for the first time,” said East Helena Public Schools superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.
Dick Anderson Construction is putting the finishing touches on the new building this week. Whitmoyer said the contractor could officially turn it over to the school district in the next few days.
“Now it becomes our job, the East Helena school staff, to put everything in place, so that kids are welcomed the first day of school, that they don’t walk into a building they think is still under construction,” he said “We want this to be their home when they walk in.”
The new school features a number of improvements. It includes a secure entryway, that will require visitors to be checked in at the office. It will have upgraded technology, including interactive “smartboards” and enough computers and tablets for every student to use one. The lights are designed to be more energy efficient, and solar panels will be installed on the building’s roof.
But Whitmoyer said what’s most important is that it was created with children’s needs in mind.
“This is really a student-friendly building,” he said. “A lot of thought went into designing something that was good for kids.”
Prickly Pear Elementary School was made possible by a $12 million bond issue, approved by district voters in May 2017. Whitmoyer said the additional space was necessary to deal with overcrowding at Eastgate and Radley Elementary.
“Without this building, there was no place to go,” he said.
Last year, Radley held about 540 students. This year, after second-grade classes move to Prickly Pear, it will only have to fit about 420.
Prickly Pear will have about 260 students when it opens its doors. All of the new students will be moving together, as they were kindergartners and first-graders at Eastgate Elementary last year.
Eastgate, the smallest school in the East Helena School District, will have about 145 kindergartners this school year, along with several dozen students in the district’s Head Start and other preschool programs.
Whitmoyer said the East Helena School District saw growth in its student population this year. They did not hire any additional teachers for this school year, but he said they expect they will have to next year.
Each school now has space for further growth. Prickly Pear, Eastgate and Radley will each have about four unused classrooms this year. Last year’s school bond also paid for an addition at East Valley Middle School with five new classrooms. Work there should be finished in the next two weeks.
At Prickly Pear Elementary, teachers have already been able to bring in what they will need to set up their new classrooms. Whitmoyer said there will still be a lot of work to do leading up to Aug. 29.
“We look forward to opening the school, with a new beginning for a whole lot of kids,” he said.
Eastgate principal Jill Miller will also serve as principal at Prickly Pear. Whitmoyer said that will mean she is supervising roughly the same number of students as the principal at Radley.