HELENA — For years, Canyon Creek Elementary School – a small rural school northwest of Helena – has averaged 16 or 17 students per year. Recently, though, enrollment has doubled, with around 35 students attending this year.
“It just puts a teeny school pretty much out of space,” said Constance Horder, a trustee with the Trinity School District.
The growth is putting pressure on the school building. The school is now holding its kindergarten class in the gym, and district leaders say their current water and sewer systems aren’t in compliance with the requirements for that many students and staff.
“That puts us in a bit of a spot,” Horder said.
Now, school district leaders are looking at several big projects to adjust to the growth. First, they’re planning to install a new well and septic system. They then hope to start work on a new addition to the building.
The Trinity School District covers not only the community of Canyon Creek, but also Birdseye, Silver City, Marysville and as far as Flesher Pass. Canyon Creek School dates back to 1893, and the original classroom is still in use. The facility also includes the former schoolhouse from Wilborn – several miles further up the pass – which was moved to Canyon Creek in the 1940s, as well as the gym added several decades later.
Horder said their enrollment really began to grow during the pandemic.
“From COVID, people – especially in the Birdseye area where it was closer to go to town with their kids – really wanted their kids in a small rural setting,” she said. “We really have done well, I think, here at the school – the teachers have done a wonderful job through COVID.”
They’ve had large kindergarten classes the last two years, and many of those children have younger siblings who are also going to be coming to Canyon Creek.
Horder says, as the school is now serving so many more people, their water and sewer systems must now meet higher standards under the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. District leaders have identified $174,000 in costs to replace them.
Luckily for them, the need came when millions of dollars in infrastructure funding was available through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The Lewis and Clark County Commission agreed to give the district $62,000 in direct ARPA funding, and they’re asking the state to approve an additional $87,000 in “minimum allocation” funding. The district would provide a $25,000 match.
When county commissioners approved the funding last month, they said it was exactly the type of infrastructure project they wanted to support with ARPA money. District leaders say they’re grateful for the support.
“Otherwise, it would be very difficult for a small community,” said Horder. “It really has been a wonderful timing for us.”
Horder says the current well has tested clean this year, but they have had issues with water quality in the past. Because of that, students are currently drinking bottled water. Leaders believe the planned water system improvements would eliminate any concerns.
School leaders hope to break ground on the new addition this spring. It would add two classrooms, as well as two additional bathrooms.
“The original classroom from 1893 is very small, and we just have too many kids for all this space,” Horder said. “It should help us a lot going forward and give us a lot of extra space for computer work and other things that they just don’t have room for.”
Horder says the addition would be funded partly through money the district has already saved, as well as private donations. They are also seeking a grant to help cover the costs.
District leaders say they will not have to raise taxes to fund the water and sewer improvements or the addition.
Horder says they hope these projects will keep Canyon Creek School going strong for a long time to come.
“Everyone here in the community either went to school here or comes to the 4-H functions or the school functions and the plays and anything that goes on here – we vote here, as well,” she said. “It’s really a community center, in a way.”