In Year Three of High School Split, a Rebirth at Flathead

By Beacon Staff

Sometimes getting cut in half sets off growing pains.

For Flathead High School, once the largest high school in the state by a wide margin, the creation of Glacier High School on the north side of town did much more than divide its enrollment. It changed the school’s culture and presented tremendous challenges.

For the community, the two-school format raised previously unfamiliar questions of school loyalty. Event attendance dispersed as suddenly there were twice as many games in town – black and orange were no longer the only colors of school pride. After decades of being a one-school town, the community faced a radically new dynamic and, at times, it provoked concern, frustration and rumors.

At Flathead High School, parents and students looked over at the $35 million Glacier High School facility and watched as the school celebrated a string of historic “firsts.” They bit their tongue as media coverage favored the new school in town. They liked their own facility, but couldn’t be blamed for moments of jealousy.

Morale at Flathead waned last year as attendance at activities dwindled, athletic teams struggled to win and school pride suffered across the board. Whispers about the school district playing favorites at Glacier amplified.

Students, parents and administrators all agree that there have been bumps in the road – for both schools, though felt most intensely at Flathead – over the first two years of the school split. But now, at the beginning of the third year, there is a reinvigorated push to re-build Flathead High School’s culture: sparking school spirit; filling seats at athletic events; active parent groups; a preternatural and ambitious student council; thousands of dollars reserved for renovations and more.

It’s not a random occurrence – it’s a focused and coordinated effort between school officials, parents, teachers, coaches and students. Dean Stimpson, treasurer for the senior class, said “you can tell the time (administrators) put in to make it a really great school year.” In many ways, it feels like a rebirth.

“Everybody is feeding off of it,” Stimpson said. “The energy is definitely here.”

For years, overcrowding plagued Flathead High School, which was by far the largest Class AA school at more than 2,500 students before the split. And that was without freshmen, who couldn’t fit in the building and went to a separate school. Going into this year, the unofficial student count for Flathead is 1,420, while Glacier has 1,200, according to Kalispell School District 5 Superintendent Darlene Schottle, placing the schools on the lower end of enrollment in Class AA.

To date, school administrators feel the split has achieved its main objectives: It has alleviated the congested halls and classrooms, provided students with a better learning environment and doubled the number of kids participating in extracurricular activities, among other accomplishments. And to an extent, the grumblings from parents and students have quieted, though certainly not disappeared.

Parents of Flathead High School students, sometimes within their own circles and other times during meetings with school administrators, have voiced a laundry list of concerns over the past two years, generally centered around one overriding theme: too much focus on the new school and not enough attention paid to Flathead. Parents interviewed for this story mentioned everything from dead grass on the school’s lawn to unfavorable class scheduling to favoritism in teacher placement.

“The kids see the extra effort going into Glacier and they see the neglect of Flathead,” said Bernie Windauer, whose three kids all graduated from Flathead, including Heidi Windauer, an athletic star and last year’s student body president. “They lose some loyalty and they lose some enthusiasm for the school. They feel kind of beat down.”

Schottle concedes “some missteps along the way,” but feels the district is doing its best to address the concerns of parents and students. One example is the district’s efforts over the past two years to change the schedule of the “freshmen academy,” which many parents viewed as initially favoring Glacier. After coming from a school district in Reno, Nev., where there were 11 high schools, Schottle has seen the dynamics of multiple-school cities.

“The transition to two schools is a lot harder than the transition to eight, nine, 10 or 11,” she said.

She added: “It takes four years to change that culture.”

Schottle and Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn also addressed what they view as “misperceptions.” For one, they said the majority of district dollars spent on maintenance goes to Flathead instead of Glacier – roughly 90 percent of federal stimulus funds are reserved for the southern school. And over the past three summers, $1 million of the $1.5 million used from the building reserve has gone to repairs at Flathead, Schottle said.

They also disputed the notion that Glacier is the “rich school” and Flathead is the “poor school.” Zorn said in fact the percentage of students below the poverty line is higher at Glacier, though the difference is minimal.

Furthermore, they addressed the controversial placement of popular sports medicine teacher April Terry at Glacier High. A petition that garnered 238 signatures – many from notable parents and students – asked for Terry to be left at Flathead. Schottle said the move had more to do with logistics than favoritism, but many parents are still angered over the move. There is a new sports medicine teacher at Flathead now.

Schottle did concede that much of the district’s attention focused on Glacier after the new high school was initially built: “There was some truth in that in the beginning.” It’s natural, Schottle said, to get excited over something new.

“Not to celebrate what we had built would have been unlikely,” Schottle said.

This year, however, seems to be a major step toward relegating those frustrations to the past. Not only do parents say they are happier with the cooperation from district administrators, they also see a number of positive efforts underway at Flathead High. It’s the “energy” Stimpson spoke about, and it’s geared toward boosting morale and reviving school spirit.

Principal Peter Fusaro has formed a parent group to participate in school activities, with the goal of prompting more interaction between parents and students. Also, freshmen no longer have separate lunches, another effort to encourage school unity. Activities Director Frank Jobe has started up the “F Club,” an organization of varsity letter winners that will try to foster interest in extracurricular activities – both for participation and attendance – as well as hold events like barbecues on game day.

While there are certain intangibles to consider when confronting a somewhat nebulous concept like school spirit, there are very real considerations as well, like geography. Fusaro said the way the district’s boundaries are drawn, many of his students are from rural areas like Kila and Somers, so it’s more difficult for them to attend events.

“We need to find a way to get kids more excited about what we’re doing here and support each other,” Fusaro said. “We have a really great feel to this school year.”

There is also a renewed emphasis from parents on supporting the school’s activities. The Touchdown Club, formerly the Quarterback Club, held a “chalk-talk” football session for interested mothers on Aug. 15 and plans to hold other fundraising events throughout the year. The club is making a push to not only encourage financial support but also general community support for Flathead High School.

And the kids are definitely on this wagon, if not propelling it. Stimpson doesn’t want to witness the empty stands at football and basketball games of last year. He hopes for a return to the days when “it was still a blast to go to games.”

Winning, of course, helps, but it’s not the sole factor for game attendance. Stimpson and senior class president Taylor Carpenter said the student government is, more than in past years, emphasizing the importance of supporting the school’s teams. They also pointed to a workout program over the summer that in the past has only drawn 30 or 40 football players. This summer, 190 athletes from a variety of sports signed up and Fusaro said there were an average of 120 every day.

Carpenter gave the ultimate compliment to this year’s school atmosphere: “I want to go to school; I look forward to it.”

“I really feel this is going to be a good year,” Carpenter said. “I really do.”

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