The Billings public school district is planning to add three charter programs beginning in 2024.
These programs each serve a unique purpose, and Superintendent Erwin Garcia said that they a direct result of two laws passed by the 2023 Legislature.
"All we want is for every child to have a pathway," Garcia said.
The charter schools were authorized after the passage this year of HB 249, which allows public-school districts to operate charter schools under the same regulations.
The first Billings charter school is an early college education program, which will give students the opportunity to receive a high school diploma and an associate's degree when they graduate.
"The early college charter will help prepare students for the rest of their lives," Garcia said. "And it will allow them to be halfway to a college degree as soon as they leave, as well as being more employable."
The second charter is called the opportunity school, which will help reach students who have dropped out get a second chance to graduate.
"Just from the beginning of the school year to now, we've had 90 students that have dropped out," Garcia said. "So, that's really concerning. We're going to look at their cases, we're going to look at their credits, and we're going to say, 'Look, you have a pathway.'"
Garcia said that during the month of November, the district will reach out to students who are no longer enrolled, hoping to get them interested in the charter program.
The third charter is called the newcomer center, which will give migrant students their own classes that will help integrate them into the school district. Garcia said 100 refugees will be coming to Billings beginning in January, and at least 30 will be students.
"We are expecting to receive 100 people, and we estimated about 35-50 students coming in," Garcia said. "We already have 25 students in the district now that are migrant students, so that's a large chunk of our students that could use their own center."
These refugees are part of a Denver-based program called Luthern Family Services, which helps refugees resettle in the U.S. CEO James Horan said that Billings was selected as a resettlement city because of past success integrating refugeed from countries including Afghanistan.
"A small number of refugees found their way to Billings for a variety of reasons, and the families really thrived in the area," Horan said on a phone call with MTN. "That's a big reason why it made sense as a community that would be welcoming of more people."
Horan said that it is too early to tell where this next round of refugees will come from. He said it could be from countries all over the world, such as Congo, Ukraine, Venezeula, and others.
All of the refugees are heavily vetted, which includes six different screenings with Homeland Security, as well as a medical screening.
"It's really important that we vet these refugees to best ensure the safety and health of America," Horan said. "That process is very extensive."
Horan said that he believes the charter school in Billings will work, as he's seen it done in many other communities across the country.
"There are a number of models, including the charter school model, and they generally have been very effective," Horan said.
The early college education and opportunity charters will be held at the Lincoln Center. Garcia expects roughly 200 students will be enrolled in the two programs in year one. He added that with some reshuffling, there will be 8-10 classrooms available on the third floor, but there is currently no home for the newcomer center.
"At this time, we are going to maximize the capacity of the Lincoln Center," Garcia said. "We currently do now have space for the newcomer center, but we still have about seven months before we will officially open."
Garcia said the district is applying for the charter schools through the state and if they are approved, the district will be granted nearly $1 million as base funding. He said that funding will be instrumental in finding a location for the newcomer charter.
"We are looking for rental space, using that base funding, so we can provide that education to our students," Garcia said.
But even if they aren't granted the application, Garcia said they will go forward with the charter programs, as he believes they will make a huge positive impact on the community.
"When you do the right thing for kids, there's always excitement," Garcia said. "This is exciting. We are making these plans as a win-win for our community."