School District 2 officials celebrated their second groundbreaking of a new middle school in as many years on Thursday at a dirt-covered lot at 56th Street West and Grand Avenue.

Ben Steele Middle School, which is expected to open for the 2017-18 school year, is slated to house about 800 West End students.

“Overall, thanks to everyone for making this all possible, all the people who worked on the school and all the people who worked on getting the signatures (for naming),” said Ben Steele, the school’s namesake and a decorated educator and WWII hero. “How do you thank people for all that? … It’s overwhelming, really.”

The 119,000-square-foot building is expected to cost about $29.3 million. The project is funded by a $122 million bond levy voters passed in 2013.

“Instead of starving our schools, we’re helping them thrive,” said Jim Duncan, who helped lead the campaign to pass the levy. “Our number of classrooms over accreditation (class size) was over 100. Now we’re at 25. With this school, we’ll be at zero.”

Steele chuckled when handed a golden shovel during the ceremony, his coat collar pulled up against a chilly wind. He shook hands with well-wishers before and after the ceremony.

When introducing him, SD2 Trustee Chairwoman Greta Besch Moen described Steele as “a true Montanan, in heart and in spirit.”

Steele is widely known for surviving the Bataan Death March and spending four years as a prisoner of war. He went on to earn a master’s degree in art and teach for more than 20 years at Montana State University Billings and Eastern Montana College.

He was born in Roundup, and his family moved to Billings during the Great Depression. He graduated from Senior High, but dropped out to work to support his family at one point, Besch Moen said.

SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck called the construction of the school “long overdue” and said that it’s designed to be a “community hub,” accessible for after-school activities.

The project is part of a middle school design overhaul in which the district will move all sixth-graders from elementary schools to middle schools when Ben Steele opens. District officials also hope to offer more elective classes with additional classroom space.

Medicine Crow Middle School, currently under construction in the Heights, is expected to be finished in time for the beginning of the next school year.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.