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Science teacher Thomas Shive hands out materials to his ninth grade students

Science teacher Thomas Shive hands out materials to high school freshmen on their first day of class Wednesday. The East Helena High School students will complete their freshman year in classrooms at East Valley Middle School. 

Wednesday marked the very first day of classes for the newly established East Helena High School. 

Although the new high school building is still under construction and isn't expected to open until August 2020, the inaugural freshman class of 124 students filed into temporary high school classrooms at East Valley Middle School on Wednesday for their first day of instruction. One additional grade level will be added to the new high school each year. 

EVMS Principal Dan Rispens is currently serving as principal of the high school as well. Shaun Murgel, an East Helena native, was hired as the assistant high school principal. 

"The kids are in great spirits," Rispens said. "We have a staff that is really committed to making this a great school year."

According to Rispens, the district hired 10 employees for the high school's first year. Seven are full-time teachers while the remaining three are part-time.

The classes on offer include core subjects such as math, science, social studies, English, physical education and health. Rispens said there are also a slew of electives being offered, including yearbook, introduction to agriculture, psychology, driver's education, industrial arts, finance, choir, band, jazz band, art, culinary arts and four different foreign languages. 

"You may be wondering how we can offer all this with only seven full-time staff," Rispens said. "Well, we have several middle school teachers who are secondary certified that really stepped up to teach some extra classes."

The school is also making use of the Montana Digital Academy to teach some classes, such as Latin. According to the school district's Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer, the first day of school was characterized by infectious excitement. 

"The excitement on the kids' faces in their interaction with me was where I started my day," Whitmoyer said. "It was absolutely contagious."

Whitmoyer shared a story of talking to a new East Helena student at the breakfast table Wednesday morning. He then walked over to a group of students he already knew to tell them about the new student. Before he could utter the new student's name, he said, the others walked past him and went to sit with the new student. 

"It told me why we're doing what we're doing," Whitmoyer said. "We have some of the best kids around. They realize they're in this together."

In the broader East Helena district, 22 new teachers were hired this year with 38 new staff overall. Whitmoyer said this is up significantly from the 10-12 staff typically hired each year. He said the district added additional sections in both first and second grade to meet rising student numbers. 

Rispens said the middle school set a new record for enrollment this year with 428 total students. 

This represents major growth for the East Helena school district. With a new high school building on the way, and growing elementary and middle school enrollment, it's looking like a busy year for the district.

Though, according to Whitmoyer, the students are "taking it all in stride." 

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