BONNER — Montana’s reigning teacher of the year herded his class of junior high students into the Bonner School gym with everybody else Thursday afternoon.
Like everybody else, Dylan Huisken had no idea what they were doing there so close to bus time.
He walked out alone, class dismissed, with an oversized check for $3,000 in hand.
“Unfortunately, this doesn’t go into Dylan’s pocket, it goes to the school to do with what you will,” Mike Boehme had told the hootin’, hollerin’ K-8 students in the surprise 10-minute assembly.
Boehme and Steve Nelson, owners and developers of the bustling mill site across the street, came to the school to make the presentation. The money was courtesy of a collective effort from their Bonner Property Development and a handful of businesses at the former mill: Northwest Paint, the oldest of the bunch; Coaster Pedicab; the data processing center now known as Hyperblock, and the KettleHouse Amphitheater and KettleHouse Brewery.
It was the latest manifestation of a blossoming synergy between the school district, which turns 130 years old this year, and the mill site that Boehme and Nelson have grown from one business (Northwest Paint) to 17 or 18 since buying it seven years ago.
“I have friends now who are working across the street as it continues to grow,” Huisken said. “Friends call me up and say, yeah, I work out in Bonner now so we should carpool.”
Truth be told, the ponytailed Huisken, a South Dakota native who’s in his sixth year at Bonner, had an inkling what was up Thursday.
As he stood at the back of the gym in orange Chuck Taylor high-tops, he couldn’t help notice Boehme in front.
Shortly after the newspaper story came out in September that Huisken was Montana’s teacher of the year selection, Boehme paid him a visit.
“I went over and met with (Superintendent) Jim Howard and then spent half an hour in Dylan’s classroom,” Boehme recalled.
The lesson that day in Huisken’s eighth-grade American history class was the Boston Tea Party.
“I was really impressed with his enthusiasm for teaching and his concern for young people,” said Boehme.
He passed the impression on to other business owners at the mill and took up a collection.
“We hear so many negative things about what goes on in schools and so forth. I just thought it’d be, No. 1, good publicity for us but more so a good gesture to the school,” Boehme said.
After buying the mill and its company homes in late 2011, Nelson and Boehme revived a tradition that dates back to the 19th century, going house to house to deliver turkeys at Thanksgiving.
But that was just the start of it, Howard said.
Last April, during teacher appreciation week, Hyperblock and the Bonner-based catering business of Ryan Boehme, Mike’s son, furnished a magnificent breakfast for the school staff.
“Our teachers said it was the fanciest teacher appreciation breakfast they’d ever seen,” Howard said.
Bonner School has an emerging 3D printing program. Howard said a Hyperblock technician took a look at the printer, computer and software the school had purchased.
“He said, ‘This isn’t what you need,’ and they went out and purchased a very high-end printer” and the computer and software required to make it work.
After springing the news and leading the some 340 students in a round of hip-hip-hoorays, Boehme handed the microphone to Huisken, who thanked him and turned to address the younger kids.
He told them each spring he and the eighth-graders board a plane, fly across the country and visit Washington, D.C., as part of the Close Up program.
“We spend a lot of time raising a lot of money, and these groups (at the mill) have helped us raise that money,” Huisken said.
Later, he elaborated. Nelson and Boehme allow the Close Up students to park concertgoers' cars on mill grounds during shows at the amphitheater.
There are a growing number of partnerships between the mill and the school, Howard said.
“As I’ve gotten to know the individuals that run the various businesses, I’ve just been impressed with the interest they take in what we’re doing,” the superintendent said. “As soon as they start hearing about things going on here, you can see the wheels start turning.”
He added he’ll get together with Huisken to decide how best to use the $3,000 gift.
“He’s always thinking about how we can improve student achievement, so I’d like his input into thinking of ways we could use this to really leverage student achievement,” said Howard.
As for Huisken, it’ll be a busy rest of the school year. State teachers of the year from across the nation travel to Palo Alto, California, in early February to Google headquarters.
“I don’t know what that’s going to entail quite yet, but I’m hoping it means more resources for Bonner School,” Huisken said.
Then, at an as-yet undetermined date in April or May, they’ll congregate in Washington, D.C., for the National Teacher of the Year announcement. Activities will include a black-tie dinner with President Trump.
“The president’s schedule is pretty tight, so they don’t tell you (the date) until, like, two weeks away,” Huisken said.
Last year’s national winner was Mandy Manning of Ferris High School in Spokane. Just one Montana teacher has been honored since the award was launched in 1952. Richard Nelson, a science teacher from Flathead High in Kalispell, was named national teacher of the year in what was then the McCall's Magazine contest in 1956.