With a focus on community, the region’s schools are preparing a new generation of leaders.
High school juniors and seniors in the Great Falls area are met with a unique opportunity every year – the chance to build a house. After a groundbreaking ceremony with city officials, the teens work alongside professionals, pouring foundations, placing beams and building walls to create an affordable home that helps community residents become first-time homebuyers.
Through the High School House Program, a partnership between NeighborWorks Great Falls and Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS), students have built 42 homes. This program is just one-way area schools are connecting students with their community. NeighborWorks revitalizes communities, reclaims abandoned and distressed properties and promotes affordable housing.
As the second-largest school district in Montana, GFPS enrolls 10,500 students through comprehensive pre-K-12 programming. Parents also have the option to send their students to one of the region’s high-quality private, faith-based schools, such as Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School or Foothills Community Christian School.
These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the region’s educational offerings.
Ensuring students are ready for a career and life postgraduation is a top GFPS priority. The district provides students with every opportunity they need to succeed, including emphasizing STEM through programs and events like the annual STEAM Expo, where students and families learn about science, technology, engineering, art and math careers. Great Falls High School, one of two public high schools in the city, recently built the HUB, which connected the high school’s main campus building to the south campus building and expanded Career and Technical Education facilities.
“We continually connect our students with the community,” says Becky Nelson, community connections coordinator for the school district.
Students attend Chamber of Commerce events and tourism meetings, and they are involved with local businesses.
With Malmstrom Air Force Base located within its boundaries, GFPS works with military students and families to ensure seamless transitions to and from Malmstrom. Loy Elementary, for example, a certified National and State School of Character, has a large number of students from military families.
“The students and staff are very welcoming and work hard to make everyone feel accepted in our school climate,” says Loy Elementary Principal Kim Ray.
In addition to the high-quality teachers and lessons available at GFPS, the students are met with more to round out their educational experiences. For example, they have access to top-notch playgrounds as well as technology to complement student learning.
Many of the play structures double as neighborhood parks.
At Longfellow Elementary, which opened in 2020, a playground with inclusive features was built, including rubber mats covering the play area’s base and structures like a merry-go-round that can accommodate wheelchairs. Ruth Uecker, GFPS assistant superintendent K-6, says the district is fortunate to have a supportive PTA and foundation to help fund projects.
Plus, a variety of extracurricular activities are available. High school students can participate in “hobby” clubs, such as Robotics and Video Game Design; business clubs, such as Business Professionals of America, Future Farmers of America and DECA; athletics; music; and service and volunteer opportunities. Other options include club sports, 4-H and Scouts. The school district has invested in Chromebooks and internet hot spots that are available for students to check out and bring home for remote learning on the technology front.
“We want to make sure technology is a bridge, not a barrier, to learning,” Uecker says.
Music to Your Ears
In 2020, for the ninth year in a row, Great Falls Public Schools’ Music Education Department received a Best Communities for Music Education Award from the California-based National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). NAMM officials saluted the school system’s teachers, administrators, parents, students and community leaders who have made music part of a well-rounded education.
Within the GFPS system, both C.M. Russell High School and Great Falls High School have long been known for their outstanding music departments, and each school features a band, choir and orchestra. Plus, students at East Middle School and North Middle School can pick from band, choir, orchestra or general music classes.
More than 6,000 students attending the district’s 15 elementary schools receive an introductory curriculum to general and instrumental music, providing them with basic performance skills that they can use throughout their lives.
New and Improved
Technology is key at Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS), and it’s here to stay. In fact, the district’s two newest elementary schools, Giant Springs and Longfellow, put Chromebooks in the hands of all their students. Plus, their classrooms are equipped with Promethean screens or smart TV monitors on wheels that can be moved to any location in the classroom.
“Our kids are so in tune with technology at home that we don’t want them to power down when they arrive at school, so we want more devices available to them in the classroom,” says Ruth Uecker, GFPS’ assistant superintendent K-6. “We need our students to power up even more to embrace additional technology.”
Giant Springs and Longfellow also feature high-tech safety and security systems, including lockdown buttons that teachers in the school can hit from any corridor. Also installed are several indoor and outdoor cameras, along with emergency alert poles on the outside of buildings, so everyone can be instructed where to go if they are outdoors and an emergency occurs.
“It’s much more fun incorporating these kinds of designs into new buildings instead of having to add them to our older facilities after the fact,” Uecker says.
If you’d like to learn more about the Great Falls area, check out the latest edition of Livability Great Falls, MT.