Dear Helena Public School Families,
Are you excited for a great 2023-24 school year? We are!
Throughout the summer, my team here at the Central Office has worked to carry forward last year’s successes to make this a positive year for all.
We’ll start welcoming back students on Wednesday, August 30, which is the first day of school for grades 1-5, sixth graders, ninth graders and Project for Alternative Learning (PAL) students. Grades 7-8 and 10-12 start Thursday, August 31, and kindergartners start on Tuesday, September 5.
Watch for back-to-school details to come soon from your school principal.
In the meantime, I’d like to share updates on work that has taken place at the district level over the summer, as well as a quick look ahead at our priorities for 2023-24. As you’ll see below, we have a lot going on as we begin this new school year.
Yes, there are some big challenges as we address a districtwide budget shortfall, but these are far outnumbered by opportunities. And while there are some unknowns, we know that our first priority will always be our students.
Our progress and plans in each of the areas outlined below reflect our district’s five strategic focus areas: Teaching and Learning/Student Achievement, Educational Environment (Facilities), District Culture, Fiscal Responsibility and Communications.
That last area, Communications, is not only a district priority, but also a personal one, especially as we work through the budget shortfall and other challenges. Our decisions impact everyone in our community, which is why we strive to reach people wherever they get their news – be it email, social media, the district website, the newspaper or our local radio and TV stations.
Over the past two years, the district has significantly grown our social media presence, with more than 1,600 followers on Instagram (@HelenaPublicSchools) and more than 3,000 on Facebook (@helenaschooldistrict). Both platforms are a great way to stay on top of district news and information.
If you’re the parent of a Helena Public Schools student, you will continue to receive a district update from me each Friday via email. If you’re a grandparent, a family friend or perhaps a community member who wants to stay abreast of district news, please sign up here to receive Friday email updates. Starting tomorrow, the Independent Record will now also publish a monthly superintendent’s update in its print and online editions. The IR has a long history of coverage of our public schools and we’re grateful for this new opportunity to share district news with our community.
Please also watch for the annual district calendar to be published by the Independent Record this Saturday. The calendar will be available here at Lincoln Center (1325 Poplar) starting Monday, August 28, and will be available at your school on the first day back. Remember to grab one for your kitchen, your office or wherever you like to plan your school week.
This year we took a new approach with the calendar. In addition to a full sports schedule, the calendar serves as a district snapshot, packed with updates and useful information on everything from technology to school safety to how to volunteer. Of course, you’ll also find the usual monthly listings of district events and dates to remember. School photos, parent teacher conferences and homecoming games are just weeks away and the Helena Education Foundation’s Carnival Classic is Sunday, Sept. 10.
So, grab your school supplies, mark-up the calendar and enjoy these last couple weeks of summer. It’s going to be a great year!
Rex Weltz, Superintendent
Helena Public Schools
Summer 2023 Update and Look Ahead
Spring academic assessment results showed great progress for Helena Public Schools students, with reading scores up significantly across all grade levels. Middle and high school students also made gains in math, while high school juniors continued to score well above their peers across all benchmarks in spring ACT testing.
Math scores lagged at the elementary level, making mathematics a major focus area for the 2023-24 school year. Curriculum and Instruction Administrator Joslyn Davidson is leading a multi-pronged, districtwide initiative to raise elementary-level math performance. Watch for more information to come.
Career & Technical Education
In June, the Boeing Company awarded grants totaling $100,000 to the Helena Education Foundation (HEF) to support the development of a comprehensive manufacturing training center at Helena High School. The funding included support to purchase a software-controlled milling machine similar to those used by aviation and other industries to manufacture high-precision metal parts. HHS machining students will begin using the mill this school year.
The district will continue to collaborate with the Helena Education Foundation and the business community in Helena and beyond this year to support and expand work training opportunities.
Last week Helena Public Schools was honored to host the annual Jeremy Bullock Safe Schools Summit, which brought educators, safety and security experts, mental health professionals and law enforcement together from across Montana and beyond. Workshops covered everything from bullying prevention to school building design to using student engagement techniques. Listen in as Matthew Carey, Principal of Helena Public Schools’ Project for Alternative Learning, talks about the importance of connecting with students to promote safe learning environments.
This school year, the district will focus on enhancing and expanding staff emergency response training in coordination with local law enforcement. This work builds on safety and security progress from the 2022-23 school year, which included numerous improvements to building security, building monitoring and emergency response communications systems.
Student Mental Health Support
In July, the Office of Public Instruction awarded Helena Public Schools a two-year, $300,000 Stronger Connections through the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA). Grant funding will be used for assessment and training to reduce the number of students who miss learning time due to behavioral issues and to improve behavioral and academic outcomes for all students.
This year the district will also begin partnerships with three new organizations that will provide mental health services to students – the Helena Indian Alliance, PureView Health Center and the Carroll College Licensed Clinical Social Worker program.
This work is led by District School Health Grant Facilitator Lona Carter, whose mission is to secure grant funding and implement behavioral health support initiatives districtwide.
Throughout the summer, teachers participated in workshops to refresh their knowledge and learn new skills. Training opportunities included everything from math teaching techniques to strategies to ensure that both high-performing students and those who need extra support have equal opportunity to participate in the classroom.
Earlier this month, more than 50 Helena Public Schools teachers participated in two days of workshops at the Montana Education & Literacy Institute thanks to funding through our Montana Literacy Grant. We caught up with Kaci Hauptman, an instructional coach at Bryant and Central elementary schools, who talked with us about why teachers are lifelong learners.
In June, the district issued Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for lease of two district facilities: The 7th Avenue Gym, which is currently used for storage, and the Ray Bjork Learning Center, which was vacated at the end of the school year when programs were moved to other locations in the district as part of cost reduction measures.
Last week the Board of Trustees gave the green light to the district to begin lease negotiations with two community entities. St. Peter’s Health plans to operate a childcare facility in the Ray Bjork Learning Center. The Queen City Football Club plans to return the historic 7th Avenue Gym, which is now used for storage, to its original use as a youth sports facility. Both facilities have extensive deferred maintenance needs, which the new prospective tenants have offered to cover. We’re excited to move forward with plans to give these district assets the updates and care they need while serving our community and generating needed revenue for the district.
Meanwhile, the Master Facilities Plan (MFP) team continues to develop and refine options for our elementary, middle and high school facilities. The team will work with Facilities Director Todd Verrill this fall to prioritize deferred maintenance spending and incorporate priorities into plan recommendations. An MFP meeting will be scheduled with community leaders this fall to review potential plan recommendations.
The Budget Recommendation Consensus Committee will reconvene today after a summer hiatus. The committee will continue its work to make budget reduction recommendations for 2024-25 to the Board of Trustees, and I will continue to keep you apprised.
The next meeting of the Helena Public Schools Board of Trustees is Tuesday, September 12, at 5:30 p.m. at Lincoln Center, 1325 Poplar. Find meeting information at https://helenaschools.org/board-of-trustees/board-meetings-and-agendas/full-board-meetings/