BILLINGS – In fall 2018, a small, public elementary school tucked between Billings and Shepherd will go back to its roots and welcome 7th and 8th graders after more than 35 years.
If you’re wondering why a young teenager and family would choose to hold onto a small school learning environment rather than move on to an area middle school – we were too.
It could be because the student-teacher ratio is about nine to one, or the school has an average proficiency test score in mathematics and language 27 percent higher than the Montana average.
Or ask former student Stan Newman: “The playground. Seriously, it has the best playground of any school we ever went to.”
Newman ran around the Pioneer Elementary playground and walked the singular hall of the school addition in the late 1950s, and what he learned back then keeps him loyal to the school today.
"These kids have the best opportunity with the staff they have and the classroom size,” he said.
And Newman adds the school succeeds because of its balanced agenda and its focus on kids.
About 60 students are enrolled in the small school that sits at 1937 Dover Road. To the west is Billings Heights. A mix of subdivisions and acres of farm and ranch land sit to the east. It’s here where a few committed teachers have educated children for 113 years.
Melissa Schnitzmeier attended Pioneer Elementary in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades. She now teaches in the original one-room school house where Pioneer Elementary started in 1905. She is also the school’s first ever on-site principal and superintendent.
"We do a little bit of everything,” she said. “We are small and our teachers basically have to do it all.”
Doing it all hasn’t seemed to scare away the educators. Two of the current teachers have been with Pioneer for 19 years, and the school secretary, Mrs. Michael, will wrap up her second decade at Pioneer as summer break begins.
Her father-in-law, husband, and two children all attended Pioneer Elementary. She is proud to point out, both her daughter and son went on to graduate valedictorians at Shepherd High School.
So whether it’s the history, the student teacher ratio and education, or even the playground, Pioneer Elementary educators say they are happy they get to hold onto their 7th and 8th graders again, and welcome any other families and students K through 8 who want to join them.