The best way to get to know Missoula's schools is not by showing up to school board meetings or reporting on the latest round of teacher negotiations, or even talking to the people who run the schools themselves.
The best way, it turns out, is to walk through the school doors and witness what happens inside the classroom walls, where teachers and students engage with each other 180 days out of the year.
That was the philosophy behind the Missoulian's yearlong series "Hall Passages," where we visited 28 separate schools and school districts throughout the year, from Seeley Lake to Lolo to Frenchtown in schools ranging in population from one to 1,300.
We asked each school's principal or superintendent one question before we sent a photographer and reporter: What is unique to your school that you'd like to highlight?
And what we found was 28 separate stories of education that go far beyond the "three R's" of learning, stories of passionate students and passionate teachers dedicated to turning young minds into thinking, creative, insightful minds.
It will be our pleasure next year to continue the "Hall Passages" series and we seek stories of the best in Missoula education.
In alphabetical order by school, here is what we reported on in the 2010-11 school year:
- Big Sky High School, where students learn from the land at the Missoula County Public Schools Agricultural Education Center, the oldest ag-ed outdoor classroom in the state.
- Bonner School, where seventh- and eighth-graders are required to take two semesters of Spanish in a state that has no requirement at all for learning a second language.
- Cold Springs, where kindergartners are given "writing workshops" that introduce them to the joys of literature, and where community volunteers put in 600 hours a year to make it happen.
- C.S. Porter, which is trying to blunt its reputation as a "tough" school by creating a video project entirely written, filmed, produced and edited by students.
- DeSmet School, where students learn lessons in mathematics and physics and even geography with the aid of a flight-simulator program recently introduced at the school.
- First Lutheran Classical School, where a classical education includes a strong emphasis on language, logic and the power of persuasion.
- Franklin Elementary's family resource center, run by Sue Black, which serves as a de facto social service agency for the students and their families, 80 percent of whom come from poverty.
- Frenchtown Elementary, where fifth-graders recently completed an art project - a 58-foot-long mural documenting the natural wonders of the community they live in.
- Garden City Montessori's pro-individualist philosophy, which lets students learn at their own pace and according to their own unique interests.
- Hawthorne Elementary, where students in the century-old school learn math and literature on laptops purchased from outside donations.
- Hellgate Elementary's technology infrastructure, easily the most advanced in Missoula County, where children use the latest educational tools from the day they enter school.
- Hellgate High School and its Arabic studies program, where two Arabic teachers have found a home to begin a program that MCPS hopes to spread to all schools eventually.
- Lewis and Clark's "Walk to Math" program, where bright math students are allowed to skip a whole grade, a program unique to the school.
- Lolo School, whose annual Christmas music, drama and art program is a complete community festival and standing-room-only experience.
- Lowell Elementary, where students earn "Bobcat bucks" as a reward for good behavior and being kind to their fellow students.
- Loyola Sacred Heart High School, where a Catholic education explores the deeper meanings of spirituality and religion in everyday life.
- The Missoula Community School, where "progressive" education means children free to explore, and also free to be "Superheroes of Kindness" in their capes as they trek around the neighborhood to do good.
- Missoula International School's Spanish-immersion curriculum, where students learn all their lessons in two languages.
- Paxson Elementary, where a six-week after-school program lets students study advanced science with the help of volunteer teachers from the University of Montana.
- Rattlesnake Elementary, where fourth-graders published their own books with the help of Sentinel High School art students.
- Russell Elementary, which - along with Cold Springs - was nominated for a federal Blue Ribbon School award for its academic achievement, despite having a large number of children from impoverished homes.
- Sentinel High School's advanced-placement - or AP - curriculum, which offers the highest number of AP classes in the Missoula County Public Schools district.
- St. Joseph School, where lessons in theology are practiced on the ground by students who learn that "love thy neighbor" means caring for their neighborhood.
- Sunset Elementary, which is a school district of two: a solitary girl and her teacher, who have formed a special bond in the tiny school west of Missoula.
- Target Range, where the emphasis on science has created a culture in which the school and its students consistently win or place near the top at the state science fair.
- Valley Christian, whose students annually put on various plays and musicals as part of the official curriculum, which inculcates the biblical world view in everything from literature to mathematics.
- Washington Middle School, which has instituted an aggressive Response to Intervention program to get kids caught up in subjects they have found troublesome.
- Willard High School, which just began its first-ever school newspaper the Willard Wire, complete with all the news that's fit to print from the alternative school.