The blacktop adjacent to the playground at Hawthorne Elementary School crowded with students and parents as kindergartners through fifth-graders lined up for the first day of school on Wednesday. Teachers led students past green construction fencing and into the school, where yellow caution tape with the words “Kids at work” lined the halls and classroom doors.
“We’ve tried to embrace the whole 'everybody’s working' theme,” Hawthorne Principal Becky Sorenson said, adding that teachers wore hardhats at the school’s open house Tuesday night to emphasize the idea that construction workers, teachers, and students alike work hard at Hawthorne.
The theme of construction isn’t unique to Hawthorne. Although Russell Elementary was finished in time for the first day, many MCPS schools remain under construction.
Hellgate High School, Lewis and Clark Elementary, Meadow Hill Middle School, Willard Alternative High School Program, Washington Middle School and Sentinel High School are all still works in progress, in addition to the MCPS Agriculture Center.
The new Jeannette Rankin school also is still under construction. Students will attend Cold Springs Elementary until Rankin’s completion, which is slated for late fall or winter. The new Willard building also is expected to open later this fall but could be pushed to winter, according to MCPS director of communications Hatton Littman. This spring, construction will begin at Big Sky High School and C.S. Porter Middle School.
Some schools will have more drastic changes than others, but many agree that the changes are a much-needed facelift.
“I have lots of kids in school here in Missoula so it’s nice to see that they are upgrading the schools because a lot of them are way overdue,” said Yancey Manhan, a father whose four kids have attended or are currently attending Hawthorne.
The renovations are funded by an $88 million elementary bond and a $70 million high school bond approved by voters in November 2015 as part of the Smart Schools 2020 initiative to revamp schools in the district. Construction started in 2016 and is anticipated to go through the end of 2020.
The bonds are funding many changes in the schools, such as a new gymnasium in Washington, improved bus lanes at Meadow Hill and expansions across the board to accommodate more students.
Many schools, including Hawthorne, will also have more secure entrances to enhance safety. When complete, staff members will need to buzz visitors through the entrance before they’re able to access the rest of the school.
Many agree that the changes will be well worth it, but the process has required flexibility on everyone’s behalf. Some teachers have had to move between classrooms every few weeks or combine classes, and students may have to put up with noise throughout the day.
Although pick-up and drop-off points will remain the same, Littman said that parents may need to factor in extra time because blocked-off areas may slow down traffic.
In the meantime, Sorenson said they are turning the construction into a learning experience for students. “It helps kids to learn that there are some environmental cues that you have to read when you’re walking, when you’re playing, everywhere,” Sorenson said. “That’s a really good life skill for everybody.”