Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time at Franklin Elementary.
Nothing about Franklin Elementary indicates that it is the bearer of a shocking social statistic.
Not its medieval iron gates, or its attendance rates, or its test scores, or beautiful campus, or the neighborhood's love and support of the school's century-old buildings and the students in them.
Nothing, that is, except one thing.
The central Missoula school's family resource room is big. And it needs to be, because it's full and it's busy.
Full of clothes and boots and shoes and books and games and sofas and computers, and occasionally even food to feed the families of some of its 260 students.
Because even in Montana, a state that ranks among the nation's worst in the percentage of children living in poverty, Franklin's statistic is nearly unbelievable.
Every year, around 80 percent - four of every five of its enrolled students - come from impoverished homes. That is four times Montana's overall poverty rate.
"We have a lot of kids who don't even own a pair of tennis shoes," said Sue Black, who runs the family resource program at Franklin, and has for 17 years. "So we'll give them a pair."
And there they were, 10 pairs of tiny sneakers on a table, waiting for the next Franklin kid who needs them to wear. At another table, a child might find a pullover or a shirt or a pair of pants donated by the Missoula City Parks and Recreation Department. Or maybe check out a board game the family can't afford because they live in a car.
Because whatever Franklin families lack in money, they make up for in sheer pride and determination to make this school work for their children.
Tracy Crowley and her husband moved to Missoula from Arizona only four months ago. Researching a good school for their two children, a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader, the Crowleys chose Franklin. They saw it was beautiful, centrally located, and had good students and committed teachers.
"We specifically chose this school," said Crowley. "I did my research and this is where I wanted them to be."
Only after settling into their new home were they shocked to learn of the poverty that surrounds it. Last year, 110 students at Franklin - more than a third of the student body - were officially classified as homeless. Though many among those lived with grandparents or in transitional housing, Franklin has more than its share of children who bed down in a car or in a tent.
And so Monday, Crowley was sorting clothes as a volunteer, having joined the army of parents and neighborhood folks who make Franklin not so much a school as a community center. And that army includes the school's own teachers, staff and administrators, who often burn the midnight oil here to host a family night or a holiday get-together or run a book club for parents.
"This is the place to be for moms," said Crowley as she sorted through more donated clothes. "Sue has made this a very comfortable place."
Here, parents can rest on a sofa and read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, or get help writing a resume or looking for a job, or fill out forms for food aid while their child is a couple of doors away.
At one table, they can check the mailbox to see if their child has written them a note, or they can write one themselves - a note of encouragement or a reminder that soccer practice is at 6 - that someone on staff will hand-deliver.
There is a slight budget for all this - a sliver of money from federal Title I funds in the Missoula County Public Schools budget. But the bulk of the clothes, games, food, books and everything else comes from churches and businesses and hospitals and banks, which write regular checks to support the work done here and in other schools across Missoula (other schools have similar centers, but most are not nearly as bustling as Franklin's).
Principal Mike Williams has been in charge here for five years, but he still glows at the spirit that drives the work for the good of the children and their families.
"These are good, salt-of-the-earth people here," said Williams, who has been in education for 26 years. "They are good folks."
And at the center of it all is Sue Black, who has seen to it that the kids in this stately, historic neighborhood school get sneakers when they need them, or games to play when they want them.
Or maybe even a "comfort bag" of goodies regularly assembled from the women at Grace United Methodist Church a couple blocks away.
"I remember giving a comfort bag to a little girl," Black recalled with a grin. "You would have thought that I had given her the moon."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.