Jefferson High School is anticipating a larger influx of students from Montana City and Clancy this autumn, bumping up the incoming freshman class to about 85 students, according to Superintendent Tim Norbeck.
Of those, between 16 to 21 are expected to come from Montana City and another 33 from Clancy, according to administrators from those schools. The remainder will come from Boulder Elementary School.
This year, Montana City graduated 65 eighth graders, while Clancy sent off 43.
The students from Montana City is an increase from seven years ago, when Norbeck initially arrived at JHS.Back then, perhaps five to six students from Montana City would elect to attend JHS rather than the closer high schools in Helena, said Norbeck.
Norbeck said the average freshman class, since he’s been there, has been around 60 students.
Daryl Mikesell, K-2 and 6-8 principal at Montana City School, as well as a father of five, plans to send his oldest to Jefferson High School in the fall. Mikesell once worked as an administrator at JHS and his wife went to high school there, as did extended family members.
“My kids never really had an option,” he said.
JHS was attractive for several reasons, despite the distance from his home in Clancy — small class sizes and a good staff, as well as extras that facilitate outside activities, such as an activity bus and drivers who will pick up and drop off student athletes to and from games if it’s on the way, he said.
The small size of JHS, compared to the larger Helena high schools, is a big draw.
“There are no kids that fly under the radar at JHS,” said Mikesell.
Helena High School had a student enrollment of 1,538 in 2018-2019, and Capital High was at 1,336, according to the Office of Public Instruction. Jefferson High School’s enrollment for that year was 271.
Montana City School teacher and parent, Jennifer Burnett, will also send her daughter to JHS in the fall.
She too likes the smaller student-teacher ratio, the program offerings — particularly music and drama — and being from a small town herself, “there is a lot of beauty in a small town and a small school,” she said. It gives a “feeling of family,” she added.
Rising senior Sam Zody, who lives in Montana City, said sports were a key reason she chose Jefferson High.
Zody said going to a Class AA school, such as Helena High, would mean more competition getting on teams and playing sports. Plus she liked the idea of having Fridays off.
JHS has a four-day week, with students attending from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Fridays are left open for sports and other extracurricular activities — another plus in Burnett’s opinion.
Other advantages listed by students included Driver’s Ed being offered during the school day, a more personalized environment, and avoiding the greater prevalence of social ills — such as drugs and violence — at the larger high schools.
However, not all Montana City and Clancy parents and students are attracted to Jefferson High School.
In a survey completed last year, and which is being used to assess possible building improvements to the school, parents from the northern end of Jefferson County cited numerous reasons for passing on JHS, despite being in the district.
Many survey respondents said work and school were closer in Helena, as there were more sports and elective offerings at the bigger high schools — Helena and Capital being the most popular. Another factor was Boulder Hill, and the difficulties it poses in the winter. Many respondents were concerned about teenagers navigating that portion of highway in the snow and ice.
Some survey respondents who did not favor JHS said they wanted a high school built in northern Jefferson County.
Jefferson County has two high schools — in Boulder and Whitehall.
There is a new high school in East Helena, which has the potential to draw some students from Montana City and Clancy. It is located about five miles from Montana City. Jefferson High School, on the other hand, is 24 miles from Montana City School. Many survey respondents said East Helena was a potential future option for their children.
Mikesell said that he is aware of one student, the child of a staff member, who lives in that district and will attend East Helena in the fall. Another two have applied, but Mikesell does not yet know if they were accepted or not. The remaining 40-46 graduating eighth graders — still a majority of the class — will go to Helena schools.
East Helena is phasing in its enrollment, with only the freshman class last year, and as those move up to sophomores, a new freshman class will come in until all four grades are populated, according to Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.
When complete, the school expects an enrollment of about 500 students, with a total capacity of 620-650, he said, adding that East Helena will eventually be a Class A school when completed.
East Helena charges annual tuition of $175 for students who live outside the district, and that is to offset the taxes paid by property owners living in the district, said Whitmoyer.
Whitmoyer said the intention wasn’t to bring in students from other districts, but to provide elementary school students in East Helena with their own high school.
Mikesell said there is an enduring misconception that a Class B school, such as JHS, cannot offer the same classes and extracurricular activities that the larger Class A and Class AA schools.
Mikesell credits JHS with strategically expanding its offerings, as well as sending staffers to Montana City to show students and parents what it does have — such as strong band and drama programs.
“Their communication has been pretty darn good,” he said of JHS.
Mikesell believes the pendulum will continue to swing in favor of JHS, but there will always be those who go to Helena because it’s closer. Helena High School is about six miles from Montana City School.
Jefferson High School will likely never get past that, he said.
Ultimately, enrollment has an impact on funding — the more students, the more funding.
In Montana, school funding comes through property taxes and is based on the average number of belonging, or enrollment, said Norbeck. Those numbers are submitted twice a year to the Office of Public Instruction in October and February, and funding is based on a complicated formula, he said.
For a rural school, losing 20 or so students can result in a hit to the budget — and conversely, growth provides a benefit, said Norbeck.
In 2017, the state provided 43.5% of funding to Montana public schools, followed by local property taxes at 27%, according to OPI.
For fiscal 2017, Jefferson High School District 1 received $1.06 million in property tax revenue and $1.5 million from the state, according to the district’s fiscal and compliance report for 2019.
Other sources included local and district funds at $87,423, county funds of $315,951, federal funds of $231,948, charges for services at $128,742 and interest income of $12,150 for a total revenue of $3.37 million for fiscal 2019, according to the report.
When Norbeck came to JHS seven years ago, enrollment was around 200 students, and that includes those who attend AYA, the youth treatment facility in Boulder.
The building has a capacity of 350 with a modular unit, said Norbeck.
This fall, so far, JHS is looking at about 280 students for the upcoming academic year, along with another 15-20 students with AYA and 10 undecided students — those who sign up to attend Jefferson and another high school, said Norbeck.
Yet, Norbeck said those numbers can change — particularly the incoming freshmen from the northern end of the county.
“We find out in August if they come here or not,” he said.
Reporters Dante Filpula Ankney and Jadyn Bellander contributed to this report.