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Schools in Missoula County kicked off the new school year Wednesday, and some are already declaring their place in the international pecking order of schools.

Dahvon Pierce, 8, a third-grader at Lowell Elementary took issue with principal Barbara Frank characterizing the school as quickly becoming the best one in Missoula.

“What does she think she’s saying?” Pierce wondered aloud. “This is the best school in the world.”

Students throughout the school milled about, learning how to use the cafeteria, how to know when to be quiet and all the other basics so that academics and social skills can be the priority for the rest of the year.

This year, Lowell Elementary is introducing a program called the Leader in Me, said principal Barbara Frank, who is in her second year on the job. The leadership building program, funded by an anonymous $65,000 donation, is meant to help kids and their parents alike improve interpersonal skills and develop better goal-setting methods, among other things.

Part of Frank’s plan to foster learning at home in addition to school is to host, at least once monthly, events to engage families and help parents young and old support their kids’ learning needs. One family event that already took place for kindergartners was a dinner with their parents at the cafeteria last week.

With the help of their parents, the kindergartners could learn how everything works from their family, rather than strangers on the stressful first day of school.

“So far we’ve had a cry-free morning for our kindergartners, so I think I’d consider it a success,” Frank said. “We had all of the parents teach them that lunchroom expectation, so we'll see at lunch if it made a difference."

Cheery kids abounded throughout the school, as well as teachers and staff excited to see a new crop of students starting on their new year. A music teacher hung out the classroom door picking a guitar for passers-by, and kindergartners in unison shouted from one classroom, “We are really awesome!”

While teachers in days of yore may have yelled or scowled silently to indicate it was time for students to quiet down, the new method at Lowell and increasingly at other schools in the district is with a harmonica.

Each teacher keeps a harmonica around their neck, which is blown to signal that it's quiet time. In response, Frank said, kids are supposed to settle down and raise double peace signs, in the style of Richard Nixon's White House exit.

The Lowell building is now cutting edge, thanks to a $158 million school bond from 2015, which it split with the other 17 school sites in the county. In the classroom, each student has access to a Chromebook, Google's budget-friendly laptop.

But the wooden playground, built in 1996, is still dated. Frank is working on a fundraising effort to help pay for an overhauled, ADA-accessible playground, estimated to cost about $1.7 million. 

"We want to make sure everyone has an opportunity for recreation, nutrition, and leadership," she said. "And we want to give all our students an opportunity to walk out of here as topnotch citizens ready to conquer the world."

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