JUDITH GAP – When the Class of 2015 at Judith Gap High School selected its commencement speaker, the vote was unanimous.
Which is to say, Dakota Jolliff asked an uncle to deliver her graduation address.
She was the only senior. Some years, there haven’t been any.
The tiniest high school in all Montana is here in Judith Gap, a town located midway between the Little Belt and Big Snowy mountain ranges. The enrollment in grades 9-12 hovers around six, and as you’ll see, they go out of their way – way out of their way – to keep it that high.
Those two mountain ranges funnel some of the state’s harshest winter weather out of the north and down upon Judith Gap’s citizenry. Six miles south of town, huge windmill blades stretch 40 stories into the sky above the Montana prairie to catch the wind and put it to good use.
Judith Gap Wind Farm, the largest wind farm in the state, converts the air currents into electricity capable of powering all 80-some homes in Judith Gap – and approximately 359,920 more – through 90 wind towers.
“We’re almost a mile high, and the winters are pretty rough,” Mayor Dave Foster says. “It gets to be brutal when you get a storm.”
Locals fondly refer to their community of 126 people as “the Gap.” There’s a gate at the south end of town, on U.S. Highway 191, they swing out to block the road when the blizzards get so bad that travel must cease.
At the beautiful old home the school district provides its superintendent, across the street from the school, Annette Hart rises at 5 a.m. during the winter months to check on the forecast and road conditions, and make the call on whether to close the school because of weather.
But first, she just looks out the windows on her front porch.
“If I can see the school from my house, we usually have school,” Hart says. “But if I can’t see the school, we don’t. If I can’t see the school, I don’t need to check anything else.”
Last winter was a mild one, at least by Judith Gap standards. There were only three mornings when blowing snow obliterated Hart’s view of the school across the street.
Even if there’s no snow to blow, the wind can still be a factor. Hart let students stay in during recess one day when the children reported that it was blowing so hard, they couldn’t stand up outside.
“Of course, they were opening their coats up and holding them out” to catch the wind, the superintendent noted.
The well-cared-for school is 104 years old. Not far away, at the restaurant and bar she opened on Highway 191 two years ago, retired Judith Gap kindergarten and first-grade teacher Carol Gaugler has several historic photographs of the town on display.
Among the black-and-white pictures on the walls at her business, In the Gap, is one of the school. At least 150 students, presumably from grades 1-12, are on the front lawn in the undated, but obviously old, photograph.
When school opens this fall, a similar picture would have just 28 students from grades K-12.
And it’s only that many because they import two out of every three of their high school students from other countries.
Come September, two Judith Gap teens will be joined by foreign exchange students from Switzerland, Thailand, Taiwan and Mexico.
“We do what we have to to keep the high school open,” Hart says. “We’re running three to five babies every year, and we have three to five students in almost every class coming up. I’ve done the projections, and within five years we’ll have 30 kids in grades 6-12.”
Parents – some of whose children already spend two hours a day on buses commuting to and from school – don’t want them having to travel even farther, to Harlowton or Moore or Hobson, once they reach high school.
Were it not for a tall blue municipal water tower on a lot kitty-corner to the school, the school would dominate the Judith Gap skyline.
Superintendent Hart says the K-12 enrollment is still small enough that it’s less a student body, and more like a family.
The four foreign exchange students will be worth $23,734 apiece in state funding for Judith Gap Schools – the going rate for per-student funding for high schools with fewer than 76 students.
Hart and her husband Gary, who works for a local construction company, take in two of the exchange students. Another family hosts the other two.
With a mixture of full-time and half-time teaching positions, and half-time aides, the state’s smallest high school is able to offer a surprisingly diverse curriculum that includes band, shop and vocational agriculture.
“The only disadvantage I can think of is there’s no foreign language,” says Gaugler, who taught at the school for 32 years. “But they can make that up in college.”
One of her sons did, and his Judith Gap education led to a bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University, a master’s from Yale and a doctorate from Northwestern.
They make what they have work at Judith Gap Schools. The vo-ag program, for instance, uses an old school bus – “You can only keep them on the road for so long,” Hart notes – that has been cleverly converted into a greenhouse.
“One year, they supplied the school with lettuce,” Hart says. “Last year, they grew flowers; they’ve grown things like beans and tomatoes. They get them started in February and sell them to fund the FFA program.”
There’s one teacher for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes, one for grades 1-3 and one for grades 4-5.
Middle school and high school students are instructed by a staff that includes a math teacher, science teacher, English teacher, music teacher, shop teacher and social studies/P.E. teacher. Band students don’t have to buy their own instruments; the school provides them.
Hart says every kindergartner is issued an iPad; students are upgraded to Chromebooks for sixth-through-eighth grades, and high school students get their own laptops that they keep after they graduate.
Is it hard to fill open teaching positions in Judith Gap, where winters are challenging and the starting teacher salary is $25,500.
“It is for math,” says Hart, who is trying to do exactly that right now. “Music can be difficult to get, and business is impossible. But it’s mostly because more people are retiring, and there’s a shortage of teachers.”
Salaries are based on the tax base, Hart adds, and “Class C can’t pay like the city schools do.”
As recently as about a decade ago, Judith Gap High School – the Tigers – still fielded most of its own athletic teams. In fact, one of its last basketball teams all but emptied the town when the Tigers advanced to their first (and, as it turned out, last) State Class C basketball tournament in Billings in 2003.
Not even more than a foot of new powder snow could keep townspeople from making the trip to Billings that March, and whether the last person turned out the lights we don’t know.
But nobody shut the gate on the highway.
The Judith Gap team always had an unusual home-court advantage, in that its home court is not regulation-size.
The three-point stripe in the wood-paneled, 1950s-era gym vanishes out of bounds on the sidelines, about nine feet from the baseline, because the court is too narrow.
Also, there are not one, not two, but three midcourt lines because the court is too short. A team had 10 seconds to advance the ball past the line that was closest to its basket, but then could retreat several feet to the farthest line to run its offense.
The middle of the three lines shows the actual center of the court.
“I think that probably confused a lot of opposing teams,” Hart allows.
The ’03 District 7-C champions won their first-ever game at state in overtime, but were beaten in the semifinals and dropped a loser-out game the next morning to finish 25-3.
These days if any of the half-dozen students want to participate in a sport, they must make their way 27 to 30 miles north to either Moore or Hobson to practice and play. The three former rivals form a co-op for athletics and call themselves the Tri-Cities Titans.
Like the three-point line that vanishes out of bounds, District 7-C has disappeared, too. So many schools in this area have had to combine their athletes to field full teams that what remains have been absorbed into other conferences.
On a Tuesday evening, Gary Hart puts 14-year-old Eric Reed and 9-year-old Goddy Lapp through a series of increasingly complex taekwondo moves in the gym. Goddy’s 6-year-old sister, Saqqara, does her best to keep up with the boys, although her moves mostly involve flailing arms and legs that might at least puzzle, if not disarmingly amuse, a potential attacker.
“I don’t know my left hand from my right hand yet,” the little girl explains to Hart.
Hart offers taekwondo classes free to Judith Gap youths, and as many as half a dozen show up for the lessons. When taekwondo is over, adults are often waiting to shoot hoops at open gym.
The Tigers may now be Titans, and all the high school games may be played in Hobson or Moore, but the little gym still gets plenty of use, even when school is out for the summer. The community uses the school for other things as well. There’s also, for instance, a sewing night.
“My philosophy is, taxpayers support the school and ought to be able to use it, too,” Annette Hart says.
On this night, however, no one else arrives to play basketball when taekwondo is over, and so the three kids – joined by Goddy and Saqqara’s mother, Angel – shoot baskets for a while.
Angel Lapp – who challenges her children to try to spin the basketball on one finger, like she can – moved to Judith Gap from the Philippines eight years ago.
“It took me two years to get used to it here,” Angel says. “But now I really like it. It’s so safe for the kids.”
It’s safe, even though the school is haunted.
“Oh yes, we have a ghost,” Annette Hart says.
“When I first came to town, I noticed I’d make sure all the lights were off,” she explains. “It would get dark, and all the lights would be off. Then I’d look later, and lights would be on in the library or some other place in the school.”
Hart would cross the street and turn out the lights again.
“One time, I came over here to turn them off after I’d already turned them off, and all the doors in the school were open about an inch – but they were still locked,” she says. “I asked our maintenance guy, but he said he hadn’t been up there.
“It’s been happening a long time, but it seems to be a friendly ghost. If all it does is turn on lights and open doors, I’m fine with that.”
Besides, if the ghost doesn’t open doors, the superintendent will probably do it herself.
She opens them to seamstresses, she opens them to taekwondo students, she opens them to basketball players, and she opens them to students from around the planet.
The closing of a school can be a death knell for a small town. Here in Judith Gap, where the elementary numbers are strong, they’re doing everything they can think of to keep their high school open.