Ben Steel Middle School ribbon cutting ceremony

Hundreds of students, parents, staff and faculty gather in the courtyard of Ben Steele Middle School on Thursday

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

New principal Joe Halligan has put a lot of thought into the name on the front of Billings' newest middle school this summer. 

How to best make the legacy of Ben Steele part of the school? Steele grew up on a ranch near Billings, survived the Bataan Death March and went on to become a beloved artist and educator.

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Shirley Steele

Shirley Steele smiles after cutting the ribbon marking the first day of school at Ben Steele Middle School on Thursday.

During a ceremony celebrating the school's opening Thursday morning, Steele's widow, Shirley Steele, may have offered a distillation of Steele's remarkable life experience. 

She recalled how her husband began drawing in a prison cell during World War II, despite having no formal training, only a longtime passion for art that proved unbreakable. 

"What made him take charcoal out of the fire?" she said. 

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Steele strong

A photo of Ben Steele hangs in the hallway at Ben Steele Middle School on Thursday.

The hundreds of students gathered outside the school Thursday were more worried about navigating a large school and dealing with lockers than emulating a war hero. But Halligan led them in a first step, a simple cheer to use throughout the year. 

"We are," Halligan said. 

"Like Steele," students responded. 

Steele lived to see work begin on the school last year but died in September

"This is a fantastic school," Shirley Steele said. "I've been so privileged, our family, to see it develop. I'm proud of the people of Billings for voting for the levy for both schools."

Ben Steele Middle School is the capstone project of a $122 million bond passed in 2013 to build the new West End school and Medicine Crow Middle School in the Heights that opened last year, and to fund several other remodeling projects around School District 2's elementary and middle schools. 

The school's opening also caps a shift to a grade 6-8 middle school model, moving sixth-graders from elementary schools. 

A group of seventh-graders who attended elementary schools last year were a bit daunted by the size of the new middle school built to hold 750 students. Halligan estimated day-one enrollment at 753.  

"It was big," said Kiana Hungerford-Ciero, who, like all incoming students, toured the school toward the end of last school year. But she and her friends were also excited about being able to take new subjects like Spanish and computer science. 

"It's a lot more, what's the word, it's more modern," said Chloe Jurovich. 

Before constructing the new middle schools, it had been 29 years since SD2 opened a new school. Shifting sixth-graders into middle schools allowed the district to deal better with capacity issues in elementary schools — the district had its state accreditation downgraded in 2012 for having too many classes with too many students. 

Along with the shifting grades came curriculum changes. All middle schools are now on a schedule that uses A and B days, alternating some classes in an effort to offer more electives. 

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Hanna Bateman

Hanna Bateman, 12, gives her teacher a thumbs up at Ben Steele Middle School on Thursday.

In some ways, Ben Steele's first day looked like any other. Students chattered with friends, swapping stories from the summer.

Shirley Steele also spoke of a time when her husband, in his youth, was less than studious. 

"His classroom at that time was the ranch," she said. "His mother said, 'Don't worry about him, he'll wake up one day and realize he doesn't know anything.'"

Steele evolved into an educator who, when he caught a student pinching paper from school supplies, simply told the students to come to him if he needed painting supplies. His widow assessed the gathered teens and tweens to be closer to Steele's educator track. 

"I'm so impressed with these students," she said. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.