AUGUSTA — Elk are an appropriate mascot for the school in this community on the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front. The picture-perfect backdrop makes arriving to the building five days a week a pleasure for students and staff.
“Every morning, there is this incredible gift,” teacher Teri Bean says.
Bean lives 17 miles from town. One morning, she recalled recently, she saw three bald eagles, a coyote, and herds of deer and elk.
“Some people don’t get to see that in their life, much less in one day,” Bean said.
There are two buses that bring students to school. One runs to Bowman’s Corner on Highway 200, and the other heads toward Simms and loops around toward Fairfield. The buses transport some of the 86 students to the kindergarten through 12th-grade school.
“The children really benefit, not only for the academic, but the social part of being in the building,” says Cindy Gonzales, school secretary and a 1982 graduate of Augusta High School.
Susan Ford, music teacher and local business owner, said the students all intermingle, creating a sense of family.
“Our little kids look up to the big kids,” Ford said. “They are in awe of them, but they aren’t afraid to talk to them.”
Ford says the community rallies around the school. If there’s a sporting event, much of the town shuts down because everyone attends. Bean said the community lives by the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child.
“Our community revolves around our school,” she said.
The school has physically changed since it was built in 1920. The new wing, which includes the elementary grades, the shop, kitchen and gymnasium, was added in the early 1950s. The additions not only provided more space for sporting events, but also a more permanent location for the library. Thanks to rolling bookshelves, the library also doubles as a stage for drama productions.
The playground received the most recent upgrades, thanks to a penny drive, a donkey basketball game fundraiser, donations from individuals and businesses including Pepsi Cola, the Keck Foundation, 3 Rivers Communications and Sun River Electric, all of which created a fund of $19,000. Donations from the Helena and Great Falls branches of D.A. Davidson & Co. paid for curbing around the refurbished playground, which was installed entirely by volunteers.
Jackie Barrett, elementary teacher’s aide, says it was a community effort to improve the lives of the school children.
Beyond the facility changes, there are administrative changes in Augusta unfolding as well.
The school board is in the midst of reviewing applications for a new superintendent, and vice chairman Ted White says they hope to have the position filled by Jan. 12. There are four candidates, none of whom are internal.
Ford says the community works tirelessly to support the school and its needs, but that’s not to say teachers and administrators don’t face challenges. They’ve worked diligently to improve reading scores and develop continuity throughout the grades. Teachers say because of the small enrollment, they are able to work collectively to meet the needs of each student.
“With the small size, you are able to see the difference you make for every child,” Bean said. “There is a sense of commitment.”
Fewer students may mean they get lots of individualized attention, but because the school’s state funding is based on student numbers, declining enrollment has taken a toll in Augusta as it has in many northcentral Montana communities. This year, Bean’s kindergarten first-grade combo class has just five students, the fewest she’s ever taught in her 12 years at the school.
“We are hoping that some of the (oil-and-gas) boom that’s happening along the rest of the front will have some ricochet effect,” she said. “We need something that will provide employment that will bring in families.”
Nonetheless, Bean says students are getting a terrific education here, and the standardized test scores of Augusta students speaks volumes about the quality of education in the colorful little town.
“Our numbers might be small, but we work mightily,” she said.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081, email@example.com or Twitter.com/IR_AlanaListoe