When the last bell rings at the end of the school day, many students rush home or head to after school sports practices, jobs or extracurricular activities.
But for some students who don't have a place to go after school — such as those who are homeless or live in an unstable home — the final bell marks a period of uncertainty.
That's where Missoula County Public Schools' new teen drop-in center comes in.
The drop-in center, located at Willard Alternative High School, aims to provide the district's high schoolers with a safe space after school where they can do their laundry, complete their homework, apply for jobs, or simply plop down on the couch and have a snack.
"The general idea of it is to give kids just a safe place to go," said Jen Nave, Willard's Families in Transition coordinator who staffs the center.
The center is open to all of the district's high school students Monday to Thursday, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., although Willard students start trickling in around 2:30 p.m. when their school day ends before the other high schools.
"Missoula has such a high population of unaccompanied homeless youth that we have kids who need showers and laundry services and WiFi or just a place to hang out that isn't a two-bedroom apartment that's crowded with nine people," Nave said.
In the 2017-2018 school year, the district served 498 homeless students, 208 of whom were high schoolers, according to the most recent data from the state Office of Public Instruction. Of those 208 students, 94 were unaccompanied youth.
Yet, there are few resources to help Missoula's homeless youth outside school. The Missoula Salvation Army used to have a teen drop-in center, but it closed in 2018 when the local branch of the organization underwent administrative changes.
"We saw that when they dropped that program, there was still a need that was unmet," said Julie Robitaille, an executive regional director at Missoula County Public Schools.
Robitaille hopes the center at Willard can help fill the gap left when the Salvation Army's center closed. Robitaille came up with the idea alongside Trish Kirschten, the district's former Families in Transition (FIT) liaison, after looking at data on the Salvation Army's center and gathering feedback from students who frequented the program.
The center is funded by federal grants geared toward homeless and disadvantaged students, and uses some Title I funding set aside for FIT and foster students to fund the staff position.
You have free articles remaining.
The new drop-in center feels homey. It's in the existing FIT room at Willard, which already contains donated toiletries, clothes and food for students in need.
Christmas lights strung on the wall cast a warm glow over a cozy couch. There's a table with freshly brewed coffee and snacks, the beginnings of a 1,000-piece puzzle spanning an entire coffee table, stacked blankets and pillows, and cubbies where students who visit on a regular basis can store their things. A Bob Marley tune played quietly in the background.
"We've worked really hard to create a really chill room, and everybody just feels really comfortable coming in and hanging out," Nave said. "It's like a little home away from home."
Nave said a handful of Willard students already use the center on a regular basis, although she would like to start seeing students from other high schools.
The center on Sixth Street near downtown Missoula is accessible via the Mountain Line, and is also within walking distance for Hellgate High School students.
"Those after-school hours are often a pretty high risk as far as drug use and pregnancy so this gives a place to come and hang out and it's just a healthy environment," Nave said.
Although grants support most of its operation, the district also relies on the community for donated food and toiletries. Nave said she always needs food or gift cards for small amounts to restaurants, grocery stories and gas stations.
Right now, the district is trying to gauge interest. If there's a high demand from students, Robitaille said they'll look into keeping the space open during the summer. Over time, the district may also look into outside collaborations to provide HiSET (high school equivalency test) services, medical and dental care, mental health support, and access to other social services.
Although the center doesn't offer formal counseling at the moment, Nave said she's always available to students who need an adult to talk to.
The Missoulian couldn't name students due to privacy concerns, but one senior who recently started attending Willard said the center has helped her make new friends that she probably wouldn't make on her own.
"This is probably one of the best places," she said. "I came here and I knew people but I wasn't tight with anyone, so then I came in here and now I'm talking to five or six people."