Unlike renovations planned at the rest of Missoula’s high schools if this fall’s bond request passes, Willard Alternative High School would receive a brand-new building.

The school, built in 1920, started as an elementary school built from the same blueprints as the Whittier and original Paxson buildings. Before it became home to the district’s alternative high school, it served as the adult education building, Principal Jane Bennett said.

“The program used to be inside of Sentinel High School. When they decided to move it, there were different options, including Roosevelt and Jefferson,” Bennett said.

Since becoming the alternative high school in 2001, Willard has graduated 982 students. All of its students are technically enrolled at other high schools around Missoula, but attend classes at Willard.

Missoula County Public Schools would spend a little less than $6 million on a new, two-story building to replace the current three-story building if the $70 million high school bond passes in November.

The district has not identified where the building would go, other than to say it would be on property already owned by MCPS. Two possibilities include rebuilding on the current site or using property on South Avenue near Sentinel High School.

Although architectural plans for a new building have not been designed, it would be roughly 27,000 square feet, replacing the current 23,096-square-foot building.

Bennett said the program has a capacity of 150 students right now, and has been at that limit for years, with a waiting list of more students. The alternative program operates on a trimester system to help students reach their 24-credit graduation requirement quicker, making room for new students.

A new building would likely increase the capacity of the program slightly, but Bennett said she doesn’t see it growing much, if at all, past about 200 students.

“Part of the magic of Willard is the small size. It lets us have the ability to give each student the attention they deserve,” she said.

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The way the school was built, including asbestos in all the walls, makes infrastructure improvements very difficult and technology upgrades almost impossible, Bennett said. Added to that dilemma are undersized classrooms originally built for elementary students instead of high-schoolers.

Bennett said Willard also has more limited kitchen equipment than other high schools in Missoula.

“Older kids, our kids, are much more concerned with fresh and local food,” Bennett said.

On the third floor, what was once a stage for the auditorium was walled off while the school was being used for adult education to make another classroom, and yet another was built on the opposite end of the building.

Staff members at the school don’t have their own restrooms, with all students and faculty in the building splitting two restrooms for each gender. The school’s library is a classroom with 2 1/2 stacks of books set in the middle.

“It needs to be able to be a mix of books and computers, and a lot of libraries across the country have started to incorporate some form of MakerSpace as well,” Bennett said.

Bennett said safety is also a concern, as Willard's main doors open onto a split level of stairs leading up and down, and no one from the main office can see people as they enter the building.

With a new building, she also would love to see Willard develop its own career and technical education program, with possibilities of a focus on business, construction or manufacturing.

“A high percent of our students aspire to go to college. Some of them might be the first person in their family to finish high school, and a lot of the kids are a good fit for two-year college programs,” she said.

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Coming Friday: An in-depth look at what passage of Missoula County Public Schools' bonds would mean for Franklin and Paxson schools.

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