By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – In addition to welcoming a growing class of students, the Big Sky School District greeted 10 new teachers and two new athletic coaches on the first day of school Aug. 28, as Lone Peak High School received its first class of students to be eligible for an International Baccalaureate diploma.
“I am really excited about the teachers we were able to recruit to work for the district this year,” said BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman. “Being a rural school in Montana, in a very high cost-of-living area, is not ideal when trying to recruit teachers. I think we have a mission and vision as well as strong programming that helps us immensely to attract very qualified and passionate educators.”
Ophir Elementary School
Savannah Horwood will teach a class of 22 kindergarteners this year after obtaining a degree in elementary education with an emphasis on early childhood from Montana State University in 2016. In addition to providing a strong learning foundation, Horwood hopes to foster a global awareness in young students. She wants them to start thinking, “I’m a kindergartener in Ophir School in the Big Sky community in beautiful Montana,” she said. To achieve this kind of self- and community-awareness, Horwood plans to bring in speakers from the community. “We are going to be learning all kinds of things, reading, writing. But it’s also a very big time to learn how to be a positive, unique individual in the world,” Horwood said.
New third grade teacher Diane Dowd is also looking to foster community awareness, and feels that the Big Sky community makes that largely possible. “It’s one of the beautiful things about this small community … it’s a wonderful opportunity for lots of different age-level relationships,” Dowd said. She plans to work closely with Whitney McKenzie, who will be teaching a second class of third-graders, in order to “build the bridge of both classrooms, to learn together, to work together.” Dowd obtained her master’s degree in reading from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and has taught second grade, as well as elementary-level language arts. She also lived in Bermuda for a time, teaching language arts to high school students.
Whitney McKenzie will be teaching the second class of third-graders this year. After graduating from MSU in 2009, McKenzie began teaching preschool at Morningstar Learning Center and during her six years there, she also took on the role of program coordination director. This year she anticipates seeing some students she originally taught as preschoolers several years ago, and said, “I’m really excited to see how far they’ve come.” McKenzie plans to account for a variety of learning styles, integrating hands-on learning as well as outdoor education. “It really makes me feel good when you see a student have the ‘aha!’ moment. … It makes me want to be a better teacher,” she said.
One of two new fifth grade teachers, Allie DeCarlo began her teaching career working as a third grade teacher at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland, Maine, which is an accredited IB school. She also worked on a partnership with the University of Main, identifying and researching best practices for teaching science to elementary-aged students. DeCarlo is excited to bring her experience to Big Sky this year, helping the entire district strive for IB accreditation. “I’m really hoping to bring a lot of enthusiasm to the reading and writing,” she said. “I’m really hoping to keep a love of education there. I hope that at the end of the year, they leave school still wanting to come back.”
Bradi Watkins, the other fifth grade teacher, graduated last December from MSU and has worked as a paraprofessional and summer school teacher for Monforton School in Four Corners, north of Big Sky. Only just beginning her teaching career, Watkins is looking forward to the school year. “I’m just so excited I get to start here,” she said. Passionate about art, Watkins hopes to incorporate art into her classroom “in ways that actually enrich their learning,” she said, adding, “I hope to establish some of those grade traditions … these things that kids look forward to for each grade.” One example, she said, might be a legacy art project for the school, “a tradition that each fifth grade class does and has a permanent place in the school.”
In the past, the school district has only had one special education instructor for both the elementary and middle schools. This year, however, Agnes Adams will join the ranks in providing appropriate programming for students with additional education needs. Adams will work with students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Prior to coming to Big Sky, Adams taught at the Princeton Child Development Institute and most recently worked at Bozeman’s Hyalite Elementary School. She intends to work closely with classroom teachers in order to really get to know students in the school. “Every kid is so different in special education,” Adams said. “You have to get to know each kid.”
Ophir Middle School and Lone Peak High School
Joe Vincent, originally from Lynchburg, Virginia, will teach sixth grade English and science, as well as seventh grade history. Vincent received his degree in elementary education from Lynchburg College in 2016 and looks forward to beginning his teaching career in Big Sky. “I hope to bring a positive influence for the sixth and seventh grade students,” he said. When asked why he became a teacher, Vincent said, “It’s an important job. I think we need a lot more good teachers here in the U.S.”
Beth Billington will also be teaching Big Sky’s middle schoolers, as well as coaching high school varsity volleyball as assistant coach. As the new Spanish teacher, Billington feels language acquisition is a critical part of IB programming. “It creates a sense of knowledge of other human beings, other places beyond where we are right now,” she said. Billington says she was always interested in Spanish and studied abroad in Lima, Peru, while in college. After graduating, Billington worked in Argentina for a time and then began leading trips for high school students throughout Central and South America, as well as Southern Africa, through Broadreach Global Educational Adventures and The Traveling School.
Another teacher and coach, Austin Barth, will work with seventh and eighth grade students, teaching science and history. “I’m excited to have my own classroom … and to build those relationships [with students] you have the whole year,” he said, having just graduated from MSU in elementary education in May. “Being a first year teacher, there’s a lot of energy I’m going to have. I want students to come in and be excited to go to social studies class. With science, there are so many opportunities to take the kids [outside] and show them, ‘here it is, this is science.’” Barth, who played football for MSU, will also be coaching high school football.
Canada native Gary Varden has come to Big Sky to teach middle school and high school technology classes this year, having received a master’s in computer information systems from the University of Denver. Varden has worked as a youth activities coordinator for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, tour manager for Seaborne Aviation in Skagway, Alaska, and taught fifth grade for 15 years at the Colorado Academy in Denver. Now, Varden looks forward to engaging students with technology. “We’re going to make it fun. The students are going to actually be working with the technology,” Varden said, adding that topics will likely include coding, robotics and video.
Adam Farr will serve as the LPHS head football coach this year. Farr has lived in Big Sky for 10 years and has served as the district’s head middle school football coach and assistant high school coach for the past three years. Originally from Spokane, Washington, where he played football at the high school and college level, Farr brings his experience as an outside linebacker and tight end to his leadership position, as well as an ability to relate to high school students. With seven seniors on a team of 13, Farr is optimistic about the upcoming season, despite losing starting quarterback senior Holden Samuels to an ACL injury. “We have a bunch of senior leadership,” Farr said. “Smart, athletic, fast football players. We’re looking to capitalize on that and rally around Holden … he’s really disappointed at his injury and we want to have a great season for him.”
Almost a year ago exactly, new volleyball head coach Missy Botha and her family moved from the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii to become full-time residents of Big Sky. Botha, who played Division III volleyball at Tufts University and has experience coaching both tennis and baseball, said she’s excited to take the helm of the Lone Peak volleyball team. “They were an easy team to take over because they had a long history and Sarah [Phelps] was a great coach that prepared them well,” she said. Lone Peak finished out last year’s season with a 17-7 record and a third place finish at Western C Divisional tournament. This year’s team boasts 24 players between the varsity and junior varsity squads—the program’s largest showing to date.
“Collectively and individually these new hires bring a passion for the craft and profession of teaching, which fits in perfectly with our current staff and the mission and vision of the district,” Shipman said. “Our goals are really quite simple and straightforward: to be the best school district in the state of Montana, by any measure,” he added. “All teachers in the district help achieve these goals because they are on the ground day in and day out with our students. They all bring a commitment to excellence and perseverance to ensure learning is the number one priority.”