Students run around the Jim Darcy Elementary School playground after school recently.

Students run around the Jim Darcy Elementary School playground after school recently. Enrollment data shows the student population at Jim Darcy has increased every year, up to 420 students in 2017.

Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

Building bigger schools to cope with growing enrollment can’t be completed fast enough for teachers and students in both Helena and East Helena.

While Helena is in the process of building new schools at Jim Darcy, Bryant and Central with a $63 million bond, East Helena is building a new school for first and second graders and adding classrooms in its middle school with a $12 million bond. In Helena, a district with more than 8,000 students in 15 schools, district officials are reevaluating growing areas in an attempt to minimize any impact to learning.

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East Helena Public Schools

In East Helena, students and teachers are making the best of crowded schools by creating multipurpose rooms and teaching some classes in hallways. Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said total enrollment in September reached 1,233, which is approaching the district's 1,300 student capacity. Last year, total enrollment was at 1,201.

In May, East Helena voters approved a $12 million bond to build a new school for first and second graders next to Radley, which will alleviate crowding at Eastgate. The bond also pays for five classroom spaces at East Valley Middle School, which is fewer than 50 students away from reaching its capacity.

“We were already completely full at Eastgate School when in July, we were awarded a preschool program,” Whitmoyer said. “So we had to come up with one more classroom.”

To do that, a teacher’s lunchroom was turned into a classroom. The refrigerator and microwave were put into the corner of a computer classroom that was already functioning as a classroom and conference room for teachers to meet with parents during the day.

The new school will open up room for an additional 350 students in the district.

The district’s Long Term Infrastructure Committee started planning for growth, particularly in developing subdivisions nearby, in 2007 and held dozens of planning meetings in the last several years. The committee is trying to plan for subdivision growth nearby and predict how many new students could enter the district each year.

“It’s been a tremendous challenge just trying to stay ahead of this thing and envision the future when you don’t really have a road map,” Whitmoyer said.

East Helena is also considering adding a high school. Voters will decide via a mail-in ballot in November whether they would like the district to further explore a high school. A decision on whether voters were willing to fund a high school would be put up for a second vote after the district researched its options and presented them to the community.

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Helena Public Schools

In the Helena school district, enrollment so far is at 8,021 students, up from 7,870 last year.

Assistant superintendent Greg Upham said the district is paying attention to schools with both slowing or growing enrollment, although some years it fluctuates without a clear reason why.

Jim Darcy, one of the schools being demolished and rebuilt to accommodate 500 students, is at 420 students this year. In 2013, there were 333 students enrolled. The district has been busing kids to other schools to alleviate crowding. Enrollment continued to grow over the last five years, and Jim Darcy added modular spaces to create additional sections for kindergarten, first and second grade.

“This year, we added a third section of fifth grade,” Upham said. “Before that we bused an enormous amount of students in from the Valley. We’re not having to do that as much because we have worked hard to get students in their neighborhood schools and clean up those overflows."

Bryant, which will accommodate 350 students once it’s rebuilt, is sitting at 230 students this year.

Central is being rebuilt after it was evacuated in 2013 due to danger in case of an earthquake. Central-Linc has 18 fewer students than Central had five years ago. Upham said some parents might have moved their children elsewhere due to crowding at Central-Linc, but the decrease isn't significant enough to suggest a long-term problem. The new school will have a maximum occupancy of 375 students. 

The majority of enrollment trends can be explained by the types of neighborhoods schools are surrounded by. Enrollment at Hawthorne is down 50 students over the past five years, but it’s a neighborhood with limited new development, Upham said. Other schools in areas where new houses are being built, like near Smith and Warren, have seen their enrollment grow by about 20 students each over five years.

“That’s why it’s important that periodically school districts review their boundaries and adjust to get ready to accommodate students in all areas,” Upham said.

Enrollment at Helena High School saw a slight increase from 1,478 students in 2016 to 1496 this year. But at Capital High School, enrollment soared with an additional 110 students in one year. Principal Brett Zanto said a smaller class graduated last year and Capital received more students than usual from out of district.

“Usually there are more students that transfer from here to Helena High and is seems this past year we saw more students from Helena High over to here,” he said.

Capital didn’t hire any additional teachers this year and instead has absorbed the growth. Zanto said the average class has 24 or 25 students, but some core classes have reached 30, which is the maximum class size a school can have while maintaining accreditation. Zanto said students are able to take the classes they need to graduate, but might not have the same choice in electives or when they take a certain core class.

“It maybe limits some of the flexibility,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Capital will continue to experience rapid growth or if this year was a one-time thing.

“High schools can fluctuate like that,” Upham said. “I wouldn’t call it an anomaly.”

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