Last Class

By Beacon Staff

Click the image or use the arrows to see more images from Canyon Elementary School.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Jean Fisher’s kindergarten class is restless. Recess at Canyon Elementary School is just minutes away and the last thing the dozen students want to do is practice more spelling. Yet with a little convincing from Fisher, the students pick up their markers and whiteboards and get to work.

Surrounded by her students in a disorganized, half circle Fisher starts slowly, having them write out letters and then words. F… J… Mat… Pig…

A few minutes later the school bell rings and the kids rush out the door and down the hall. Down the long corridor toward the playground, past empty shelves, stacked boxes and stored desks.

Last Friday, Canyon Elementary in Hungry Horse closed and two days before Asa Wood Elementary School in Libby did the same. Both schools fell victim to low enrollment rates and slashed budgets, a growing issue for Montana’s small and rural elementary schools.

Starting next fall students from both Canyon and Asa Wood will be sent to other schools in each district. Students from Canyon, in District 6, will attend either Glacier Gateway or Ruder Elementary schools in Columbia Falls. Those leaving Asa Wood, in District 4, will be sent to the current middle school building in Libby for kindergarten through sixth grade, moving seventh and eighth graders to the current high school site.

Forty-eight elementary schools have been closed or consolidated in Montana since 1993, according to the Office of Public Instruction. Of that, only seven have been reopened. Often it’s the shrinking or aging populations of an area that forces school districts to shut down schools, according to Asa Wood principal Scott Beagle.

“We’re losing jobs so young people are moving away,” Beagle said, adding that an older population who don’t have school-aged children are less interested in supporting local education with tax increases.

That’s the case in both Hungry Horse and Libby. Between 2000 and 2010 the population of Hungry Horse dropped from 934 to 826. During the same period the median age increased from 35 to 42. While the population in Libby has stayed relativity stable, the median age rose from 43 in 2000 to 45 in 2010. These statistics combined with tough economic times have forced rural school districts to find new ways to stretch less money further, said Dan Rask, executive director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance.

Established in 1996 as an affiliate of the National Rural Education Association, the Montana Small Schools Alliance helps rural schools develop curriculum, stay accredited and apply for federal grants. Rask said that in the last decade the number of rural schools that have been forced to close has rapidly increased and much of this can be attributed to rising costs of maintenance and staff, and budgets that don’t compensate for that.

“You just can’t drop your budget with every student that comes and goes,” Rask said.

Rask said it’s an unfortunate scenario because often the smallest schools perform the best academically, thanks to low student-to-teacher ratios. He understands, however, that the low ratio can’t keep a budget in check.

“Will more small, rural schools close?” he asked. “I’m afraid that’s the scenario we’re facing in this economic climate.”

Dealing with that tough economic climate was what forced Canyon’s closure in District 6, according to Superintendent Michael Nicosia. He said the district couldn’t continue paying the $700,000 it took to operate Canyon every year without making significant cuts elsewhere. With enrollment at the school dropping from almost 250 more than a decade ago to 80 in 2010, shuttering the school in Hungry Horse was the easiest option.

“You can only be financially inadequate so long before it catches up with you,” Nicosia said.

Along with the shutdown of Canyon came the elimination of 21 positions at the two other elementary schools, the middle school and high school in District 6. The staff at Canyon all had enough seniority to keep their positions at the other schools.

That staff includes Jody Lester, a para educator for 27 years who has spent most of her career at Canyon. In that position Lester works as a teachers assistant and this year spent most of her time helping Fisher and her kindergarten class.

Both Lester and Fisher agreed that the small school has almost taken on the feeling of a second family and leaving will be tough.

“We just know everybody,” Lester said. “We laugh, we play and we cry together. It’s nice, it’s good and I’m going to really miss that.”

Although they both know they’ll settle in to their new schools in time, Fisher said that it won’t be the same going from a school of less than 100 to one of 500, adding that at Canyon kids almost grew up together like siblings.

Lester said that it has been emotional for some staff and students. She has tried to simply focus on her job and not think about the impending closure.

“You can look at it as a loss or you can remember the positive,” she said.

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