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Schools should reflect the community’s commitment to its children’s education.

That was one guiding principle stated at the Helena School District’s facilities planning listening session for school staff Tuesday night at Ray Bjork Learning Center gym, 1600 Eighth Ave.

The meeting was the second of what will be eight school district listening sessions, with six designed for community members and two of them geared to staff.

Another community meeting was held Wednesday at Ray Bjork.

Another is 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at Jim Darcy Elementary School, 990 Lincoln Road. Check-in and refreshments are at 5:30 p.m. 

Turnout Tuesday was around 20, and those present suggested that listening sessions should be held at each school to encourage greater staff participation.

Several also said they’d prefer to have the public and school administrators involved in the next staff listening session, set for Dec. 8. However, at least one staff member disagreed, saying some staff members feel intimidated speaking out publicly.

All of the listening sessions follow the same format. The key discussion questions are:

  • What guiding principles are important to you in discussing facilities and educational goals?
  • What interests need to be recognized as the school district plans for facilities improvement?
  • What do you not want to lose when planning improved facilities? What do you want to gain?

Like Monday’s meeting, facilitator Virginia “Ginny” Tribe, broke the larger group into smaller ones to make it easier for more people to speak up.

All the comments in the smaller groups were recorded on large flip charts, and each group reported out to the whole group later in the meeting.

Participants could then add additional comments on any of the discussion topics.

For complete reports of all the discussion points from the first four meetings, visit www.helenaschools.org -- where they will be posted early next week.

Staff suggested that guiding principles for the facilities planning should include:

  • Planning needs to be ongoing and sustainable to allow facilities to adapt for an evolving world.
  • Every child deserves a school environment that is safe and healthy.
  • Schools should be a focal point in the community.
  • School location matters.

Some points brought up in discussion were that facilities planning can’t just happen every few decades, but needs to be ongoing if it’s going to adapt to a changing world and changing needs, such as technological upgrades.

On the topic of schools as a safe environment, Central-Linc Elementary teacher Amy Casne-Fetz said, “We have a nurse shared between three schools in a day.” Yet, there are students in the school with cancer and diabetes who need nursing staff on site.

“We have homeless kids,” said teacher Tim Kelly, adding they need a safe environment that’s stable.

“Schools can be a focal point in the community,” said Helena High School principal Steve Thennis, who added that Helena High School should be involved with the ongoing Sixth Ward planning and that the school could be a social and community center for that neighborhood’s events.

The central location of HHS is important, he said, which makes it easy for students to take college credits at Helena College across the street and also at Carroll College, which is nearby.

Another participant said she believed that schools should be located where the kids are.

Some of the interests the staff said need to be recognized in facilities planning include:

  • There is a historical interest in Central School.
  • Schools should be affordable to taxpayers.
  • The district needs to show it's making progress, even if it starts on only one school.
  • Schools should adequately provide for technology.
  • Walkability to schools should be maintained.
  • Flexible and innovative spaces are needed for learning.
  • Schools are a reflection of community values.
  • Art, music and physical education should be maintained.
  • Students have adequate space and time to eat their lunch at lunch time, rather than some having to eat at 10:30 a.m.

Some of the things the staff doesn't want to lose, include:

  • community support
  • quality of programs
  • walkability
  • families and students at Central-Linc, which reportedly has been losing students since Central closed and students were relocated to Lincoln School in 2013
  • counseling services in each school
  • Title I program

Some of the things the staff wants to gain include: 

  • more equity in classroom size and number of students
  • room for community programs
  • appropriate space for all school programs
  • neighborhood schools for every child
  • cafeterias that are not shared with gyms

The group also discussed how to move forward.

“We need to do an autopsy,” said Casne-Fetz, of the bond failure. “What did we not learn? What didn’t help?”

“How do we get trust back?” asked Elly Driggers. “We need strategies for building trust,” and for working with the community. “We need to get people back on board.”

A couple staff members suggested there needs to be some timeline for moving forward.

However, Tribe cautioned that the listening sessions are just an early step in the process.

A random sample survey will follow once the listening sessions are completed in December, she said.

At that point, the board will need to decide a next step. It takes longer, said Tribe, when you do a more inclusive process.

“One of the things we need to do is win back trust,” said Kelly. “It’s not us versus them. We’re all in this together.” It might be helpful, he added, for a future plan to give various options about what can be done.

Tribe pointed out that a community discussion process reveals there is a lot of common ground on both sides of an issue.

“That’s very powerful,” said a staff member, adding that it’s not about an end vote, “but how to have the community support what we need for education.”

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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