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Miles Avenue

First-graders in Heather Manske's class work independently on reading and math skills Thursday at Miles Avenue Elementary.

PAT BELLINGHAUSEN,Gazette staff

More than 110 local business people and other community leaders volunteered to spend last Thursday morning in school. The annual Educator for a Day event, sponsored by the Foundation for Billings Public Schools sent us into classrooms to learn firsthand about our K-12 schools.

I was assigned to Miles Avenue Elementary where I learned from Principal Kristin Wagner how her school has benefited from recent levy elections. Last May, Billings voters approved an increase in the local K-8 levy. One item the district promised to fund was two-tenths of a counselor. A year ago, Miles Avenue Elementary had a 0.8 full-time equivalent counselor. This year, Lindsay Horton works a full five days a week at this old, brick school tucked into a neighborhood of modest houses and duplexes.

Horton looks out for students’ special needs, including nutrition outside of school. Several students are receiving weekend food packages to take home from the Back Packs for Kids program. Other students are homeless or in foster care.

Built in 1955, Miles Avenue got significant upgrades with the elementary bond issue that voters approved in 2013. Lew Anderson, who managed that bond projects for the district, told me later that Miles Avenue projects included a new roof on the school and the decades-old annex, a new mechanical system, flooring, lighting, doubled classroom electrical capacity, rebuilt sidewalks, sealed asphalt and landscaping.

Nearly two-thirds of the 275 students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. The high proportion of economically disadvantaged students means the school receives federal Title I funds that provide a full-time math specialist and three paraprofessionals who work with struggling students to help them get up to grade level in both math and reading.

Valley Federal Credit Union has been the school’s Partner in Education for eight years. Sixteen Valley Federal employees volunteered at the school’s carnival so more parents could enjoy the fun, educational event with their children. Credit union employees volunteer each week to listen to first-graders read. Valley Federal workers will see that some needy Miles Avenue families have delicious turkey dinners this week.

Wagner arrived at Miles Avenue last February. She praises the schools veteran staff for their passion for students and learning.

“We have a huge number of students with significant trauma,” Wagner told her visitors Thursday. “We emphasize safety and trust.” If a child doesn’t feel safe, it’s hard for him or her to learn, she said.

“Small, but mighty” is how Wagner describes the Miles PTA. The PTA has raised money for teacher grants of up to $200 and the president has worked successfully to get donations for school projects.

The school reaches out to parents, recognizing that they have many challenges, Wagner said. “I have learned how hard parents are trying. I am so thankful for all these parents who are trying.”

Kendra McMullen and Matt Macrow, of Valley Federal Credit Union, visited Miles Avenue with me. They are familiar faces at the school, having volunteered for events through Partners in Education, another program of the education foundation.

“Community involvement is part of our culture,” McMullen told me.

Earlier that morning we heard Superintendent Terry Bouck discuss partnerships that have benefited local students — partnerships with businesses that helped put hands-on science lessons in all 22 K-5 and all six middle schools, partnerships with local health care providers that started a school clinic at Orchard Elementary and soon will open a clinic at Medicine Crow Middle School.

The first slide in Bouck’s presentation proclaimed: “It takes all of us.” A few hours at Miles Avenue Elementary shows that’s true; community matters very much.

Pat Bellinghausen is The Gazette opinion editor, email pbelling@billingsgazette.com.

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