ROUNDUP - The week before Christmas, seven new students enrolled in Roundup's Central Elementary School. Five more came right after New Year's.
In drips and drabs throughout the year, new students have been integrated into K-6 classrooms in a beautiful sandstone schoolhouse built between 1911 and 1913.
"When school started last fall, we had 293 students," Superintendent Chad Sealey said. "Now we have 325."
More could be on their way as miners are added at the Signal Peak Mine, 15 miles north of town.
That's good news in many ways for the old cowboy town 45 miles north of Billings. Like many towns in rural Eastern Montana, it had been losing ground as its young people found opportunities elsewhere. In the 2000 census, the median age in Roundup was 43, compared with a statewide median of 39.2 and a national median of 36.4.
Census statistics from that count put the number of residents over the age of 65 at 17.5 percent, compared with the 13.8 percent average for Montana.
"This is what we need, young families," said Beverly Eiselein, an assistant in the school district office.
The youth of the newcomers is reflected in the ages of new students. While the elementary school gained 37 students this year, numbers at the junior high and high school were virtually unchanged, Sealey said.
It isn't just the mine that's bringing families to Roundup, he said. Many families have moved here to find a better place to raise their children.
The district, which had seen declines in enrollment, has absorbed the new students without much trouble, Sealey said.
No new teachers or classrooms were necessary - a good thing, since every classroom is already in use. But the elementary school may be reaching its limits.
"We definitely could not go up to 400 students again," Sealey said. "The way we teach now is so much different now than it was 15 years ago."
The school district has no idea how many more students will enroll in the next year or two. Trustees have asked Montana's Coal Board for a $17,274 grant to begin the planning process. The board is out of money and won't make new awards until summer.
"We could find out in August we're going to have 50 new students," Sealey said. "That could be a problem if they are all in elementary school."
The district has made some inquiries about modular classrooms, although it doesn't have a place to put them. Officials are also eyeing a nearby commercial building that may be available for sale or lease.
Longer-term solutions may involve construction, and the planning grant could help to sort out the best options.
The Signal Peak Mine hasn't added much to the tax base yet, but Sealey expects that once it does, increased revenues will help meet needs countywide.
That may take a year or two.
Meanwhile, Central Elementary is busy chalking up laurels. It recently won a national Title 1 Distinguished School Award and is one of a few Montana elementary schools nominated as a Blue Ribbon school.