It's impossible to visit Ben Steele Middle School, 5640 Grand Ave., without learning something about the renowned World War II hero, artist, teacher and mentor who shared his name with the school.
A young Ben Steele, newly enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, looks over the school commons from a larger-than-life photo on one wall. The Army Air Corps insignia is emblazoned on a glider built by students and now suspended from the cafeteria ceiling. The school displays dozens of paintings from artists across the country — all works that Ben Steele inspired the artists to create.
Throughout the 2 1/2-year-old school building, hall posters encourage middle schoolers to take on Ben Steele's attributes: awareness, accountability, critical thinking, initiative, engagement, tenacity, perspective, teamwork, problem solving and positive risk taking.
The staff strives to teach and nurture those attributes in the school's 801 students, Principal Joe Halligan told his Educator for a Day visitors Thursday.
Steele died in 2016 at age 98 while the middle school was under construction. His widow, Shirley Steele, 94, has continued to grace the school by speaking at every major student assembly, Halligan said.
I spent Thursday morning at Ben Steele Middle School as part of Educator for a Day organized by the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools. All told, 155 community members were "guest educators" for the morning at one of Billings Public Schools' 33 school buildings. It was the most participants ever for the annual event, according to Krista Hertz, foundation executive director. The group included businesspeople, retirees, city, county and college leaders and a couple of state legislators.
Besides me, Ben Steele visitors were Carissa Welsh of St. John's United, Kristin Pinter of First Interstate Bank, Julie Seedhouse of Century 21 Hometown Brokers and Arlo Thomas of Alberta Bair Theater.
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I learned Thursday that middle school teachers go the extra mile to get resources for creative learning. We stopped into John Urbaska's tech ed classroom that is filled with state-of-the-art technology paid for with fund-raising projects, such as selling flowers from the school's greenhouse. Last week, the greenhouse held 1,000 poinsettias that looked ready to be Christmas table centerpieces. Students grew the poinsettias from seedlings over this semester.
Science teacher Patrick Kenney showed us the grant-funded wind tunnel students constructed and now use for science studies. He supervised students who built the glider that hovers over the cafeteria and has plans for another student-built aircraft.
Ben Steele Middle School enrollment reflects the rapid growth of Billings' far West End. The school was built for 750 students. It reached capacity immediately upon opening in August 2017 with 754 students in grades 6-8, including about 50 out of area students whose parents had requested the new school. That summer, the school installed more lockers.
As of last week, the school had 801 enrolled students, only three live outside the attendance area, Halligan told us. Three more new students are expected to enroll this week. Then nearly all the school's 808 lockers will be in use.
Ben Steele is the district's newest school and now has the largest student body among the six Billings middle schools. The middle schools closest to Ben Steele's attendance area are Will James, which recently had just under 600 students and Lewis and Clark, which has about 750 students. Decisions about future adjustment of attendance area boundaries haven't yet been made.
There certainly are challenges in educating 800 students, each of whom has individual needs. Many students have experienced trauma in their young lives, and the staff must meet these adolescents where they are emotionally and academically. Individualized help is incorporated into the school day with the last 30 minutes devoted to WIN (What I Need). That can be advanced studies or remedial assistance, depending on what each student needs.
I left the school positively impressed that the staff handles their challenges with professionalism and compassion for the tweens and teens in their care. The slogan on the posters I saw all over the school has been taken to heart: WE ARE LIKE STEELE.