Although students don’t begin classes until Tuesday, the official start of the 2012-13 academic year for Missoula County Public Schools began Monday with a picnic and a big-band sound on the front lawn of Sentinel High School.

While dining on hot dogs and listening to the all-MCPS employee ensemble belt out renditions of “Shake Rattle and Roll” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” teachers, administrators and MCPS staff gathered to reconnect after a summer away and to celebrate a new beginning.

There were no speeches, no pep talk or any other kind of formal welcoming.

Rather, the casual gathering was a strategic start for what is an ambitious academic year with a forward-looking agenda, said Alex Apostle, MCPS district superintendent.

“I’m very excited to start the school year,” Apostle said while standing in the shade of a tree and listening to the band.

“Our staff has worked very hard to prepare for the year and we are proud of our 21st century initiatives.”

At the heart of the year’s agenda: MCPS’ International Baccalaureate program and the Health Sciences Academy.

“The teachers have really done their jobs in terms of being able to launch these programs,” Apostle said. “It’s a really special place in public education for MCPS to be in.”

For certain, teachers and staff at Monday’s picnic were eager to begin the school year.

“I just want to get in the classroom,” said Carleen Hathaway, a para-educator at Porter Middle School.

Even after 22 years of teaching emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students, Hathaway said she gets excited for the first day of school.

“I enjoy the students, and our caseload is about 14 students,” she said, “but it is like a revolving door – it can change at any time.”

Summer gets to be too long and too boring, said Shawn Holmes, an industrial arts and history teacher at Seeley-Swan High School.

“I’m ready to roll and to get things going,”said Holmes, who has been a teacher for 17 years.

Last year, Holmes’ students built an 18-by-30-foot greenhouse and picnic tables for Seeley’s outdoor classroom.

This year, he’s looking forward to seeing students bring the greenhouse to life with soil management classes and plantings.

In the short term, he’s got some shelving projects to assign, but as is typical, other unexpected projects will certainly find their way into his classroom.

“Something always comes up and the kids always do some kind of project,” he said. “I like working with the kids – it’s always interesting, and it’s fun.”


At Big Sky High School, Mary Fillmore, a teacher of culinary arts and family consumer science, is excited to ignite a whole-grain passion in her students.

In fact, if Fillmore and her crosstown teaching counterpart at Hellgate High School, Audrey Nichols, have their way, all of Missoula’s MCPS families will get excited about whole grains.

The duo are back from a international summit on whole grains and are on fire to incorporate them into the curriculum.

One solution they’ve discussed: creating a smartphone app so when people are shopping they can type in Kamut or quinoa and get easy-to-use, healthy recipes for the exotic protein-packed grains.

“The summit was pretty amazing, and we were the only schoolteachers there,” Fillmore said. “We learned a lot and we really want to share all the information.”

Nichols was astounded to learn that 9 million Chinese are pre-diabetic and China’s health officials are appealing to the United States to help with prevention and nutritional education.

Whole grains, she said, are part of the solution for China – and for Missoula.

“We want to teach not just students, but we need to educate their parents about these healthy foods,” she said. “We hope to do that, and the schools are on board.”

On Tuesday, 5,500-some K-9 teachers will begin such lessons.

On Wednesday, another 3,000 high school students will start classes, after a day of orientation for freshmen.

“I always get a little nervous about the first day of school,” confessed Sheri Postma, a library media technician who has been teaching for 25 years.

“It’s always such an exciting time.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at

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Wow! 5,500 teachers is a lot! (Editing matters, Missoulian. We care.)

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