HELENA – On Friday, Helena Public Schools leaders gave the public a chance to look inside the district’s three newest elementary schools.
The district brought at least 50 people on a bus tour to Central, Jim Darcy and Bryant Schools. Those in attendance included school administrators, teachers, parents, school board members and others from the community.
Superintendent Tyler Ream said this was a good time to showcase the progress that’s been made.
“When we’re first putting the steel up, it looks a little bit like a puzzle,” he said. “Now with the drywall, you can see distinct classrooms, you can see where those spaces are going to be in classrooms. It’s a really special thing.”
Central School’s architectural features are beginning to take shape. Jim Darcy already has some of its drywall and windows installed. At Bryant, crews are already working on paint and tile – and even installing cabinets in some classrooms.
“Every week, I come in and there’s something new to see,” said Kalli Kind, the district’s director of support services. “It’s just so exciting.”
The architects who designed the new buildings and the principals who will move into them led the tour. At each location, they highlighted the unique aspects of each project.
The tour began at Central School, where the new facility will allow downtown students to return to their neighborhood for the first time in six years. Central students have been going to school at the former Lincoln Elementary School, on the other side of town, since the 100-year-old former Central building was ruled structurally unsafe.
Leaders pointed out the steps taken to link the new Central School to its predecessor. Stone arches from the front and back of the old building will be installed in prominent places inside the new facility. A historic bell will be hung in the new school’s entryway.
“We’re preserving as much of the history of Central School as we could,” said principal John Stilson.
At Jim Darcy, the biggest issue has been space for a growing student population. Many students are currently in modular classrooms, and the current gym is so small that lunch has to be served two grades at a time so all the students can get in.
The new school will be more than double the square footage of the current building. It features a “pod” design, with all classrooms in a given grade centered around a shared space that can be used for larger activities. The new gym, significantly larger, will be available for community functions.
“We can get a thousand human beings in here – literally a thousand,” said principal Brian Cummings. “This is for not just the North Valley, but for all Helena to use this space.”
The current Bryant School facility, built about 80 years ago, has suffered from aging infrastructure and overcrowding. It also has a gym that is separate from the rest of the building, so students have to go outside in all weather to go to physical education classes. Bryant also had the smallest campus of any school in the Helena School District.
The new facility was built behind the current school, allowing students to stay in place during construction. Its most notable feature is an elevated “sky bridge,” connecting the main building to the gym over what was once a section of Sanders Street. Each grade level will have classrooms and common areas, linked by paint accents in a single bright color.
“To say we’re excited for this new building is an understatement,” said principal Trish Klock. “Going from what we currently have to this, it’s like it’s just a dream come true for these kids.”
Leaders say each school was designed to meet unique needs.
“They’re not cookie-cutter schools,” said Ream. “We incorporated the community’s voice, the teachers’ voice, the kids’ voice in each of the designs.”
While each school is in a different stage of completion, Kind said all three are still on track to be completed in time for the upcoming school year.
“The schedule, as its working today, is working perfectly,” she said.
All three schools are set to be “dried in” by the end of January – meaning enough exterior work will be finished to keep out the weather. Kind said the relatively quiet winter has been a benefit for the construction.
“The weather has absolutely been generous to us,” she said.
The new Bryant, Central and Jim Darcy are the first newly constructed schools in the Helena School District in decades. They have been funded by a $63 million bond issue, approved by voters in May 2017.
“This was really an ask of the community, and a promise to the community,” Ream said. “I feel so good when we’re here, to know that we’re delivering in that promise and what it’s going to mean for kids.”