EAST HELENA — This summer, there has been more work than usual to get East Valley Middle School ready for the upcoming school year. That is because the building is about to play host to the East Helena School District’s first class of high school students.
“It’s been a whirlwind of activity,” said Dan Rispens, the longtime EVMS principal who is now also serving as principal of East Helena High School.
The school district began preparing to build a high school last year, when voters approved a $29.5 million bond issue for a high school of their own. The new building is still under construction, but leaders decided that they would hold the first year’s classes in unused classrooms at the middle school.
Rispens said the freshman class will be about 120 students, though the enrollment won’t be finalized for several more weeks. Administrators have hired a vice-principal and about 10 full- and part-time teachers. They’ll be offering the core subjects – math, English, science and history – plus physical education, health and electives ranging from business and foreign language classes to agriculture and shop class.
“We want to be able to offer everything we can for the kids, so that they can have a great high school experience,” said Rispens.
Most of the high school classes will be held in EVMS’ newest wing – five full-sized and one one smaller classroom that were added onto the school last year, using money from a 2017 elementary school bond. The district planned the classrooms to prepare for growing middle-school enrollment, but administrators realized they weren’t needed this year, so they could be used to host high-schoolers.
“It’s really going to test this building,” Rispens said. “Next year, we’ll be at full capacity, but we’ve got a plan to make it work.”
As East Helena High School begins classes in its temporary location, construction is also continuing on the permanent building. The main school’s steel structure is starting to come together, and the gym’s high block walls are prominently visible.
“It’s amazing,” said East Helena Public Schools Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer. “You can now actually see what the building looks like.”
Whitmoyer said, so far, everything is on schedule for the new school building – just off Valley Drive north of the Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue building – to open in the fall of 2020.
As that building comes together, leaders say the temporary classrooms at EVMS will serve as an important testing ground. They’ve set the rooms up with a variety of different seating options and technology packages. That will give them to chance to see which of those options will be best for the final school setup.
“The teachers get to try it out and tell us what works well and what doesn’t work so well,” said Rispens. “Then before we go out and buy 50 ‘smart boards’ or something, we’ll be a little more informed in our decision-making.”
Whitmoyer said, as the high school construction continues and the first classes get closer, he’s noticing a growing excitement in the East Helena community. He said he’s looking forward to welcoming the first students who can call themselves East Helena High School Vigilantes.
“We are steeped in the old culture that has been working so well for the East Helena community, and that culture is then contagious into the high school, as well,” he said.
The first day of East Helena High School classes will be Wednesday, Aug. 28.