HELENA – Wednesday was the first day of school for students in the Helena and East Helena School Districts. For some kids, it was the start of their time at a brand-new school. Others were coming home to one they had been forced to leave last year.
A group of about 260 first- and second-graders arrived for the first day of classes at East Helena’s Prickly Pear Elementary School. The new facility was completed just a few weeks before the school year began.
“We’ve been waiting for the kids to get here and breathe the life into the building,” said Jill Miller, who is principal for both Prickly Pear and Eastgate Elementary. “It’s a beautiful facility, but today is when it all really begins.”
Miller stood in the parking lot before the start of school, helping direct buses and parents as they got used to a new traffic flow.
“How they get in and out of the parking lot is always a challenge,” she said. “If we get that set up right the first day, then it goes smoothly the rest of the year.”
East Helena Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen were also on hand Wednesday morning to welcome the first classes to Prickly Pear.
Voters in the East Helena School District approved a $12 million bond last year to pay for the new school. It was intended to reduce overcrowding at Eastgate and Radley Elementary. The bond also funded several new classrooms at East Valley Middle School.
In the Helena School District, about 8,000 students started classes Wednesday. Almost 500 of them came to Rossiter Elementary School – the first time they returned to the school after high water flooded the campus this spring.
“It’s exciting to be back,” said principal Doug Baker. “Hopefully we get to stay for the entire year.”
During the height of the flooding, volunteers placed thousands of sandbags around the school and managed to keep the water out of the building. That meant there was no serious damage.
“The team wanted to get back in the building,” said Helena Superintendent Tyler Ream, who visited a number of campuses on the first official day of his first year leading the district. “It’s wonderful that they’re back, and it looks amazing in here.”
The flood displaced Rossiter students and staff for the last month of the school year. Helena Middle School hosted them for several days, then they moved onto Carroll College for the remaining weeks.
“The kids are so resilient,” said Baker. “They were very responsive to arriving on Carroll’s campus and just taking in that experience.”
Baker said it took a community effort to get Rossiter ready to welcome back its students. He thanked everyone who contributed, both during and after the flooding.
“Everybody just stepped up when we had a need,” he said. “To me, I guess that’s what community is about, and that’s what makes the Helena community such a great place to be.”
Rossiter is also one of five Helena School District facilities starting the year with new security improvements. All visitors will now need to come to the front door and check in with the office before being allowed into the building.
“We will know who is coming in and out of our buildings at all times – and that’s by design,” said Ream. “It’s going to be a little bit harder to get into the building. We can’t just come in the side door anymore.”
Four Georgians and Warren Elementary, along with C.R. Anderson and Helena Middle Schools, also received the upgrades.
“Really, that’s what our community demands: that we have that level of security in our schools on behalf of our kids and our teachers,” Ream said.