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Education

Community Survey Results Guide Whitefish Schools Towards Future

Respondents felt positively about the culture of the Whitefish School District, pessimistic about the district’s ability to handle growth

By Denali Sagner
Whitefish High School on March 15, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the Whitefish School District (WSD) moves forward with the creation of a new strategic plan, a survey completed by over 400 local stakeholders offers insight into the district’s strengths, and where its community sees room for improvement.

The Whitefish School Board recently held a work session facilitated by Darlene Schottle, an independent education consultant and the former superintendent of the Kalispell Public Schools, who guided the board through the first steps of drafting a new strategic plan and graduate profile. Each school district in Montana is required to develop an Integrated Strategic Action Plan (ISAP), a guiding document that outlines the district’s mission, vision and guiding principles, in order to maintain accreditation with the Office of Public Instruction.

“Your job is to create a plan that keeps academics moving forward, that considers the whole child, that makes your students, each student, as it said, successful,” Schottle told the school board. “You need to think about where you’re starting at [and] what you need to do to improve to make it even better.”

The board’s discussion of the strategic plan hinged largely on a survey sent to Whitefish students, parents, teacher and community members earlier this fall that polled respondents on the district’s academic offerings, school environment and facilities.

Community members offered overwhelmingly positive feedback on the academic culture of the Whitefish schools.

84.9% of respondents said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that WSD students are provided with the instruction and support to achieve at least one year of academic growth per school year; 75.5% said that WSD maintains high expectations for students and staff; and 71.6% said that WSD provides sufficient options for students to be engaged in extra-curricular school programs such as clubs, activities and athletics.

Respondents said that WSD teachers “have high standards for themselves and their students” and that expectations for students are clear.

Questions about the district’s offerings garnered more mixed results, which Superintendent Dave Means and members of the school board attributed in part to communication failures between the district and its families.

On a question that asked respondents whether or not WSD provides sufficient options for work-based learning, apprenticeships, career technical training and certificates, 11.2% said “strongly agree;” 23.4% said “agree;” 24.7% said “neutral;” 11.5% said “disagree;” and 26.7% said “unsure.”

“I think that’s where it gets to communication about what we are doing,” Means said, discussing the high number of respondents who said they were “unsure” about the district’s offerings.

Similarly, on a question that asked if WSD students have access to a sufficient variety of specialized educational programs such as art, music, theater, Running Start at Flathead Valley Community College and Advanced Placement (AP), 26.4% said “strongly agree,” 42% said “agree,” 12.2% said “neutral,” 9.2% said “disagree” and 26.4% said “unsure.”

The sole question that garnered largely negative responses asked stakeholders if WSD “has sufficient facilities to address community growth that continues to impact enrollment growth in our schools.” 54.9% of respondents chose “disagree” or “strongly disagree.”

Survey respondents said that Whitefish High School does not have sufficient space to accommodate growth and that classrooms across the district are full. One respondent criticized the lack of dedicated outdoor athletic spaces in the district.

The concerns about growth landed on the desk of the school board one month after Whitefish voters rejected a $33.7 million bond that would have funded a major expansion of Whitefish High School and its adjacent athletic complex. The bond failure marked the unsuccessful culmination of a more than year-long campaign by parents, teachers and the school board to expand the high school campus ahead of projected growth.  

WSD has seen record student enrollment for the 2023-24 school year. 1,954 students are currently enrolled in the Whitefish schools, the highest enrollment the district has seen since 2001. 663 students are enrolled at Muldown Elementary School, 651 at Whitefish Middle School and 640 at Whitefish High School (including Whitefish Independent High School).

The current WSD strategic plan can be found here.

The Whitefish School Board will continue discussions of the strategic plan in January.

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