When educators at Helena's three new elementary schools started moving into their learning spaces earlier this week, many felt like their jaws would hit the floor.
The new Jim Darcy, Central and Bryant schools opened to teachers as construction workers were putting the finishing touches on the three buildings. The educators had the chance to start unpacking boxes and get a feel for their new classrooms ahead of the school district's formal open house events.
"This place is incredibly kid-centered, from kindergarten through fifth grade," said Jim Darcy Elementary School Principal Brian Cummings. "It's so inviting. It just puts a smile on my face."
The school was deliberately designed this way, according to Michael Dowling of Dowling Studio Architects, the project's principal architect. Dowling explained that the design philosophy was to incorporate as many multi-use spaces as possible. From the ground up, the new Jim Darcy was designed to meet the needs of the North Helena Valley. It even has outdoor spaces that block the harsh valley winds.
Dowling said it was really nice to see teachers so excited about moving into their new teaching spaces, especially after all the years it took to get the school built.
"It's amazing, it's awesome. When you first walk in it's so open and inviting," said Tiffany Hofer, a fifth grade teacher at Jim Darcy.
Hofer said the old Jim Darcy school felt cramped when compared to the new building. She said she was overwhelmed when she first walked into the new building. The new school lends a sense of professionalism and inclusiveness that Hofer said she appreciates. For her students, she hopes being in the building will help improve their learning experience. As a fifth grade teacher, Hofer's classroom was previously in a modular unit.
"I think it is going to help them have a sense of belonging to this school," Hofer said. "I'm excited for what is to come."
Having all the students in one building also has tangible benefits like keeping students inside as they transfer from class to class. Hofer said it's little things like this that will make the difference to her. Features such as flexible seating and a reading nook in her classroom have Hofer pondering her many options once school starts.
"I'm really just excited for it to get started," Hofer said. "Walking in and seeing it, it's becoming real."
This excitement is something that has Cummings invigorated for the upcoming school year. He said having his teachers so excited is an exhilarating feeling. Cummings, who has been Jim Darcy's principal for the past 13 years, said the new school feels so different it's almost like starting over again.
"The excitement is so much that it feels like our first year all over again," he said. "We are so fortunate."
Across town at Central Elementary School, teachers and staff are excited to have a school in their own neighborhood again. The building that previously housed Central School was evacuated in 2013 due to earthquake concerns.
Ashley Komac, a second grade teacher at Central, said her new classroom is "absolutely incredible."
"When I first walked in I was blown away and my 3-year-old wanted to go play basketball on the new court," Komac said. "They did such a great job. We are so fortunate."
For Komac, it's the little things that are really making her love her new classroom, from simply having a room number outside her door to being able to see the Sleeping Giant from her classroom window.
"This is a 10. I can't wait to see my student reactions," Komac said. "So many of my kids were excited to just walk to school again. I really lucked out."
Lisa George, Central's secretary, is excited about the new school as both a neighborhood resident and school employee. George, who has worked at Central for 25 years, lives a short walk from the new school. After six years of driving across town to Central-Linc, just being able to walk to work again and not worrying about traffic or trains has her thrilled.
"I've lived in the downtown area for 30 years and I just love it here," George said. "Just having the kids back in the neighborhood and having them walk to school. It's going to be great."
George believes that having the school back in the neighborhood will also improve overall parent and community involvement. "Their proximity to the school will be a huge boon," she said.
Having what George called "gorgeous million dollar views" also helps her enthusiasm.
"This is the first time in six years that I'm excited to come back to work," George said.
At Bryant, veteran teacher Kathy Canevaro said she's still trying to find her way around.
"Usually it's the kids who are nervous, but I'm a little nervous as well," Canevaro said. "I've gotten lost a few times so far, I told them they need to get me a GPS."
Canevaro said she is still pondering how to make use of the space in her new classroom. In her 28-year teaching career, Canevaro has never had access to multipurpose spaces like the ones at the new Bryant school. She said before school starts on Aug. 28, she need to figure out the limitation of the space so she can inform her students.
"We have never had this type of space," Canevaro said. "I've got to figure out how to utilize this space."
Canevaro said she was blown away by her "gorgeous" classroom. However, she was waiting for furniture to arrive so she could finalize the layout. One thing Canevaro is already making plans for is utilization of lighting in her teaching. The classroom's adjustable lighting and access to natural light are things Canevaro wants to experiment with when it comes to lesson plans.
"I just really appreciate the community support," Canevaro said. "I hope the community comes out during the grand opening to see what their money bought."