EAST HELENA — While one of Montana’s two new state charter school laws is currently facing a legal challenge, the other is moving forward unaffected – and school districts across Montana are currently putting together applications to start charter programs under that law.
State leaders have given districts a roughly one-month window to apply to set up a charter school, starting next summer, under House Bill 549. In the East Helena School District, leaders say that was a challenging timeline, but this was an opportunity they wanted to take advantage of.
“We do have a significant number of kids who would benefit from something just a little bit different than the regular school programming, regular classroom – and this will give us an opportunity to try and create that,” said Superintendent Dan Rispens.
On Monday evening, the East Helena school board held a special meeting, where trustees unanimously approved moving forward with submitting an application, ahead of the deadline of Nov. 1.
East Helena Public Schools’ proposal is for a charter school with a working title of “the 227 Academy” – named after the area’s phone prefix, which has become a popular symbol of the community. Rispens said their idea would essentially be an alternative school, serving high school and middle school “students of promise and students at risk” with more individualized education plans.
EHPS already has a small alternative program within East Helena High School, but Rispens says they’ve seen a need to make it more robust – which would require more staffing and more resources. He said creating a separate charter school could let them access additional financial support that could make the difference in making that expansion possible.
“Most of the time we're trying to make something out of nothing, and here we're getting a little bit of support from the state,” he said.
According to the initial draft of their application, the academy could serve 62 students in its first year, then grow to around 120 by the fifth year.
In response to questions from trustees about how a new charter program might affect their existing schools, Rispens said he expected the impact to be relatively limited at first. If the charter school’s enrollment grows significantly, he said that might lead to shifting some staff from the traditional schools to the charter school over time.
HB 549 gives local school districts the first option to create charters, but allows independent schools to come in if districts don’t move forward on their own. The Montana Board of Public Education will determine which applications are accepted.
In this first year, the applications were made available to school districts at the end of September, and proposals will be due Nov. 1. That meant district staff have had to work quickly to put their proposals together. In future years, there’s expected to be a longer application period.
During Monday’s meeting, Rispens told the school board that, since this is the first year of the program, there are still a lot of unknowns. He said the district doesn’t have a full understanding yet of what the Board of Public Education will be looking for.
“We're giving it a go and giving it our best shot,” Rispens said. “Even if we get turned down, we feel like we're going to learn a lot, and that will inform us for the next opportunity that comes around to apply.”
East Helena isn’t the only district in Lewis and Clark County planning a charter proposal this year. Helena Public Schools leaders said Monday that they’re submitting proposals for three charter programs: an expansion of the Project for Alternative Learning, a Montessori charter school and a hybrid online and in-person program called the Mount Ascension Charter School.
“This legislation creates an important opportunity for the district,” said HPS Assistant Superintendent Josh McKay in a statement to MTN. “With these applications, the district aims to enhance our existing PAL and Montessori programs and offer new educational options to adjust to the educational needs of our community.”
An HPS spokesperson said, because of the short timeframe to apply, the Helena school board didn’t take a formal vote on the proposals before the deadline. However, they did hear an informational presentation on the plans, and they will take a vote at their next regular meeting.