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Life After Canyon Elementary
Staff and students move on from school closing, but more cuts may be on horizon
Kindergarten teacher Jean Fisher checks on the progress of her student Josiah Street during class at Ruder Elementary School in Columbia Falls. Fisher was a teacher at Canyon Elementary School, where Street would also have attended school, before the school closed at the end of the last school year. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
COLUMBIA FALLS – With a class full of kindergarteners, it was the buses that worried Jean Fisher.

“At Canyon I told kids to go get on the bus. The one bus,” Fisher said last week. In contrast, on her first day teaching at her new school, Ruder Elementary, a fleet of school buses arrived at the end of the day.

Fisher had spent the last seven years teaching at Canyon Elementary School in Hungry Horse, which closed in June due to budget cuts and declining enrollment. Canyon, along with Asa Wood Elementary in Libby, joined a growing list of small, rural schools across Montana that have shuttered. Since 1993 almost 50 elementary schools have closed, according to the Office of Public Instruction, and only a handful have ever reopened.

About 60 students who attended Canyon Elementary chose between attending Glacier Gateway Elementary or Ruder Elementary, both in Columbia Falls and part of School District 6. Most teachers at Canyon were also able to obtain jobs at the schools: four moved to Ruder, two to Glacier Gateway.

Fisher said it was unsettling to leave the school in Hungry Horse. It was the only school, and classroom, she had ever taught in. And the relationships between teachers and students are different because of the size of the school. Ruder has more than 400 students.

“In the canyon we knew just about every child and that's different now,” she said.

However, the larger school has also provided new tools to Canyon teachers. For example, Ruder has behavior, reading and language specialists and a full-time counselor.

“What they've given me is the ability to bring more quality to my curriculum,” Linda Hopkins, a second grade teacher who transferred from Canyon, said.

Kindergarten teacher Nicolette Bales added that having more teachers in the school means more ideas, which greatly aids in prepping lesson plans.

“You get to share, borrow and steal everyone's ideas and you don't get set in your ways,” she said. “It makes you a better teacher.”

Principal Brenda Krueger, who at one time was the administrator at Canyon, said her staff has made an effort to make the new staff and students feel welcome. She tried to place at least two Canyon students in each class to help them adjust and said her time at the school has helped during the transition.

“I knew them there and I know them here and I think they transferred well,” she said. “I still get lots of hugs.”

Yet all of the teachers have noticed some of the older children having a harder time settling into their new surroundings, mostly with making new friends.

The financial troubles that plagued School District 6 and forced the Hungry Horse school to close may not be over. Krueger said previous year's enrollment averaged around 440 students, yet this year there are 424 students, even with the new additions.

“Honestly we have a lot of families moving to North Dakota and Wyoming for jobs. The economy is playing a huge part in that,” she said.

Superintendent Michael Nicosia said operating Canyon cost approximately $700,000 annually but the savings from its closing aren’t lasting as long as he hoped. Declining enrollment throughout the district has meant less funding for schools, even while costs continue to rise, he said.

In the last two years, 30 staff members have been cut in the district and Nicosia said closing Canyon prevented even more layoffs last year, but there may be more in the future.

“Well when almost 90 percent of your expense is staff, it stands to reason that's where cuts will have to be (made),” Nicosia said.

Nicosia said next year's budget will be determined by enrollment counts taken later in the fall, but until then it's hard to tell what type of cuts could be made in the years to come.

For now, Canyon teachers who have moved to Columbia Falls schools are focused on settling into their new surroundings. Bales joked that on the first day of school, she knew about as much as the incoming kindergarteners. But even if they've gotten a little lost, it’s been a great experience.

“I feel a loss for the community, but professionally it’s been incredible to teach with new teachers,” Bales said. “I think they understood that this would be tough for the staff and students and they've gone out of their way to make us feel welcome.”
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