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Billings schools packed with kids, but district not ready for 4th high school

West High School
Posted at 5:25 PM, Sep 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-02 19:26:48-04

BILLINGS — For the second consecutive year, Billings West High School has the largest enrollment numbers in the state of Montana. Billings Senior and Billings Skyview fall closely behind in second and third, and it’s led to people wondering about the construction of a fourth public high school in town.

This year, West High will have close to 2,300 students. According to a report from Billings Public Schools, the functional capacity of the school is only 1,731, meaning that classrooms around the school are fuller than educators would like.

2022 Enrollment Chart

Fifth-year principal Kelly Hornby says the difference is noticeable, especially in the number of students in each classroom.

“Well normally, I think this school has hovered around 1,700, and that seems to be a good size for this school. Right now, we’re sitting at 2,300,” Hornby said. “There comes a point that you can only put so many students in a classroom. And then that hurts the student.”

And West High isn’t the only school pushing its building's capacity number. Senior High currently has 1,753 students enrolled and its functional capacity sits at 1,686.

Skyview is the only high school in Billings below their functional capacity of 1,684, and it narrowly remains under with 1,632 students.

Overpopulation at Montana high schools is a common problem. Kalispell Flathead was the largest school in 2006, but once Glacier High was built across town, Flathead's enrollment decreased.

Flathead Enrollment Changes

More recently, Bozeman High was the largest school in Montana until Gallatin High was added to the community in 2020.

Bozeman Enrollment Changes

Even with the steady growth in the Billings area, school Superintendent Greg Upham says district officials are not going to start working on building a new school yet.

“We don’t have enough students to build a new school. That question is asked: ‘Are we going to build a new high school?’ We are not at this point in time,” Upham said.

Upham did say that the school board is actively working to readjust the current district lines in place.

“We’re adjusting those existing boundaries, and that’s what a school district should do. Like I said, every three to five years.” Upham said.

For parents in the West High School district like Brian Bentley, the larger schools have not taken away from his children’s student experience.

“With the large numbers, there’s always a concern about the experience. The education, the grades, the GPA, the testing scores, and we haven’t had a negative experience,” Bentley said.

Eventually, the general consensus seems to be that the only way to level out the number of students in the Billings schools is a fourth high school.

“The redistricting is patchwork. We buy time, but I think eventually we’re going to need something on the west between here and Laurel,” Bentley said.

For now, fixing the current boundaries is Upham’s focus. Any changes will be done for the benefit of the students.

“It’s about making sure that we maintain equity as far as the schools are concerned and so we can provide a better service all the way around,” Upham said.

As for West High, Principal Hornby is confident that his staff will continue to do their best with the current numbers in place.

“There’s not a person in this building that doesn’t place students as their priority,” Hornby said. “We’ll put a lot of kids in a classroom and the teachers step up and they provide the best education they can with the tools that they have.”