As East Helena High School’s inaugural freshman class wraps up the last few weeks of its very first semester, school officials are preparing for the landmark changes coming in year two and beyond.
The community began discussing the idea of an East Helena High School over a decade ago, and a groundswell soon ensued. It took three trips over six years to the Montana Legislature to get the OK for communities like East Helena to even vote on whether they wanted to pay for their own high schools.
After East Helena voters agreed to fund the new high school, the school’s first students started classes this fall in an unused wing of East Valley Middle School. In the fall of 2020, these 123 students and the new freshman class will be the first to attend classes in the new East Helena High School building currently under construction.
The Independent Record editorial board recently met with the school district’s superintendent Ron Whitmoyer along with Dan Rispens, who is currently the principal of both the middle school and high school. Both expressed enthusiasm for the way students, parents and teachers have embraced their local high school and noted how exciting it has been to see the hundreds of parents and residents at fall sports events, supporting the students. More than half of this year’s student body participated in fall sports, which is huge.
Among the challenges Whitmoyer mentioned are the long distances East Helena High School athletes must travel to compete in sporting events, which cuts into instruction time. East Helena is currently competing in the Southeast conference of the Eastern Division of Class A, which also includes Billings Central, Laurel, Hardin, Livingston and Lockwood. Whitmoyer said he objected to this classification in a letter to the Montana High School Association, noting that the Southwest conference would be much easier on athletes and their families.
School officials have also been working to clear up some misconceptions about the school’s mascot. Whitmoyer said East Helena Vigilantes are not meant to be rebels, and the name is meant to encourage students to do what is right and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.
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Rispens said this year’s freshmen recognize that they have made some sacrifices by choosing to attend East Helena High School instead of enrolling in Helena High School like their predecessors. And while they may not have as many clubs and activities to choose from, he said, the East Helena freshman do not regret their decision.
“They are very committed and set that they are part of this new program and new school,” he said. The students have been involved in the decision-making process from day one, and Rispens noted that it has been exciting for this year’s freshmen to be the ones establishing the school’s traditions.
East Helena is a growing community, and school district officials anticipate the new high school will reach capacity quickly as several new subdivisions are built in the area. Therefore, they are limiting the number of out-of-district students and starting to manage growth as early as the kindergarten level. The school board is also starting to focus on a long-term infrastructure plan to help ensure the district can continue to meet the needs of students for many years to come.
Clearly, this is an exciting time for East Helena. And we commend Whitmoyer, Rispens, the school board, students, parents and the broader community for their perseverance to make East Helena High School a reality.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.