Education Featured Helena Montana Politics

Advocates for a High School in East Helena Need to Be More Honest

Despite my position as a teacher at Helena High, I don’t have–and never have had–a strong position on the issue of whether East Helena should build a high school for the students who live there.  While I have some concerns about the level of resources they will be able to provide their students and concerns that the people of their district are being provided unreasonably rosy enrollment projections and low estimates for the cost of maintaining a high school, it’s ultimately up to the people of East Helena to decide the future of their communities and schools.

What is frustrating, though, is that advocates for the new school in East Helena are not being entirely honest about the state of the school that most of their students currently attend: Helena High. Advocates for the East Helena high school have been claiming for years that Helena High is “overcrowded,” a claim neither supported by the statistics or life in the school. Right now, Helena High has a student population of 1,493 kids, which is nowhere near the highest number of students the school can–or has–held. When Helena High first had to implement a zero (early start) period, it was because enrollment was at 1,700. Over twenty years ago, Helena High might have been overcrowded, when some classes were conducted in trailers outside the main building, but it hasn’t been like that for decades, and as a teacher who has visited every AA school in the state, Helena High is less crowded than many.

Perhaps the school was overcrowded then, but it certainly isn’t now, as a look a the numbers and a quick visit to the school would show.

In fact, Helena High has a student-staff ratio that is right in line with state and national averages, a number that the proposed new high school in East Helena would be hard-pressed to match or exceed.

While it’s possible that the idea of a school being overcrowded is subjective, other claims about Helena High are objectively false. Echoing claims I have heard elsewhere (and from people who should know better), an East Helena high school advocate claiming “insider” knowledge recently posted this claim about Helena High School on an Independent Record story:


There are so many untrue statements in that claim that it’s hard to know where to begin. While, Helena High, like every school, occasionally has a class that exceeds state limits, those issues are routinely resolved within the first few weeks of class as student schedules shuffle and populations settle. The idea that there is a rampant shortage of desks and textbooks at Helena High is also false, as for most classes, students are provided both digital and physical copies of texts.

Hell, I have three extra desks in my room if any teacher needs one or two.

Worst of all, despite the use of present tense in this comment, the teacher in question does not currently teach a class at Helena High or in the district at all.

Later the same commenter cites insider knowledge to claim that there is a “coming storm” for budgets in the Helena School District and that taxes will soon be higher to maintain schools for Helena than for residents of East Helena.

This person–and others advocating for East Helena–should know better and should remember that, in the long run, making the best case for a new school in East Helena should rest on arguments that are true, not specious claims about overcrowding or some of the unprofessional digs at the Helena School District that have come from East Helena.

The Helena School District graciously dropped its opposition to legislative action that permitted the people of East Helena to vote for a high school for their community. That was the act of a good neighbor, and one would hope that East Helena advocates would reciprocate and treat both the voters of their community and the educators of the community next door with the same neighborly regard.

Ultimately, isn’t that what would be best for the students and taxpayers?

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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