During 13 years of teaching at Billings Senior High, Craig Beals earned national teacher accreditation and was named Montana Teacher of the Year. He is in the classroom before school starts and long after the last bell rings for the day. He encourages and challenges his earth science and honors chemistry students. He makes learning fun while teaching the material and study habits students will need to succeed in post-secondary education and careers.
Beals is the kind of teacher that we want in every classroom, but even the best Billings high school instructors are struggling to deliver top-notch education with inadequate, outdated materials and equipment.
A visit to Beals' science room showed why: There's white tape on the chrome handles that turn on Bunsen burners, an indication that they need to be repaired. Maintenance staff keeps repairing the gas valves, but they keep breaking. Beals has up to 28 students in science labs, but only seven usable lab stations. Counter tops are disintegrating. Sinks don't work.
"Things are constantly falling apart," he said, so the teacher keeps a toolkit in his classroom to fix equipment as it breaks.
While other AA Montana high school districts offer Advanced Placement courses in every possible subject, Billings public high schools have been limited by lack of funding. For example, Billings schools have never been able to offer AP chemistry.
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"AP chemistry is robust, it's college chemistry. I think the community has been asking for AP classes for some time," Beals said. "These kids are thinking much farther into the future. Our kids are thinking big."
Students and parents are aware that high school graduates have to be prepared to be competitive — for their careers and post-secondary education.
Montana's complex school funding system actually provides fewer dollars per student in bigger districts. With the largest number of high school students in the state, Billings is allowed to spend less per student than other districts. The funding situation is even tighter for Billings high schools because part of the state-allowed spending has to be approved by local voters. Billings voters haven't approved a high school operating levy increase in 12 years. Meanwhile, most other Montana school districts have been successful with levy requests.
This spring, Billings honors chemistry students are still using worn out textbooks published in 2005; earth science textbooks in use date to 2006. The texts are so old that digital editions weren't ever made, and there is no longer online support for the CDs that came with the original books.
Every one of Billings' nearly 5,500 high school students needs adequate and up-to-date learning equipment and materials. That is what the proposed levy increase would provide — at a cost of no more than a dollar a month for most Billings homeowners. Please vote yes for the high school levy. All ballots are being mailed Friday and must be returned to the county elections office by May 7.