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Darby School is off to a new school year with an early jump start and a burst in enrollment.

Darby started school Monday and has a district-wide increase of 46 new students – 20 percent of that in grades 8-12 and the senior class had a 16 percent increase.

“Generally you don’t get seniors to transfer,” said Kurt Kohn, counselor. “It is rare for seniors to transfer because they want to finish up where they were but we have seniors coming here that are seeking that dual credit opportunity or heard about our other offerings.”

The majority of incoming students are from other Bitterroot Valley schools, mostly Hamilton, but students are also coming from Nebraska, Oregon, California, Florida and Hawaii. Many returned to family in the area but some families came because of the ability to do a job remotely, live in Montana and have their children attend a small rural school.

“The numbers are a surprise,” Kohn said. “We expected new students but not that many. We’ll take it with smiles.”

Kohn asks each student when they register why they want to attend Darby Schools.

Reasons include that they heard good things about the school, the personalized learning program, the science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) Lab and 3-D printing, hands-on experience opportunities, the digital music class, the drum line, dual credit, working at your own pace and customizing your schedule.

“The students coming are hearing Darby Schools are good by word of mouth,” Kohn said.

DHS principal JP McCrossin said size is a big part of their decisions.

“It comes back down to we are a small enough school that we can make things happen that bigger schools can’t,” McCrossin said. “We can adjust schedules and our teachers will work to accommodate students. Bitterroot College has been outstanding and our students take classes there in the afternoon. Missoula College has been great working with us on dual Credit.”

DHS has a wide variety of dual credit classes and added welding to that offering this fall.

McCrossin said incoming students are excited to be here and ready to join activities and sports.

“They are asking how to be involved in student council or the Interact club – not when are the vacations,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good things going. The best part is it is word of mouth – kids are feeling good about what we are doing.”

McCrossin said he’s proud of the long-time Darby students for welcoming in the new students.

“The culture of our school has changed and no matter what you look like or where you came from our student welcome everyone,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you wear - you could look like a surfer, like a skater or like a cowboy, they don’t care as long as you are a polite, nice kid, you’re good.”

The DHS mentor program works to insure that students don’t fall through the cracks. Every morning a teacher mentor meets with eight to 12 students for 25 minutes, then meets with them individually sometime during the week.

“Every one of our general staff has a mentor group,” Kohn said. “It is a way to start the day off with a smile with someone who is your ‘go to’ person, someone who has got your back. Individually, they meet about the student’s personal goals – how are your grades progressing, how’s your attendance, what is going on in your life – taking a personal interest.”

Darby School’s early start to the year has mostly had a good reception with the athletes already attending practices for a couple of weeks. Even with holidays and a week-long spring break throughout the year Darby Schools get out in May. They will have attended classes seven days before other schools in the valley start school on Sept. 4. They do have days off for the fair and Labor Day weekend.

Darby Schools had a busy summer with 18 students attending the high school summer school, to catch up or get ahead, and 38 students attending a STEAM Lab/NASA robotics camp.

Darby STEAM Director Tom Wood said his space and classes is “focusing on physical design and using the language of computers - code.”

“Basically, it is a ‘makerspace’ for project-based learning,” Wood said. “In the primary grades, it blends the arts and science to explore and design in an atmosphere of creative levity. As students' academic requirements become more significant in the secondary school setting, the STEAM lab offers a space for extended projects to enhance curriculum between disciplines and grade levels.”

Wood received a grant for the NASA summer camp he led with an assistant and high school student volunteers.

“The team of high school student volunteers and I worked out some really creative shoe-string budget activities for many of the elementary and scale modeling exercises,” he said. “Issue by issue we figured out each and every gap and by the end of the week, were pleasantly surprised in how great the experience was. Many parents expressed how their kids were waking them up early and making sure they were getting them to the school on time.”

Next year he hopes to run another summer camp possibly lasting two weeks and will be looking for people to sponsor a student for a day or a week.

Darby Elementary School Principal Chris Toynbee said there are 190 students in his school. That number is not the official count that happens early October but it is the number of students who need desks to start the year.

“We are so excited,” Toynbee said. “My sixth-grade class is right on the cusp of being over. You can have 30 students in a sixth-grade classroom without needing an adult aide in there. We have homeschool families and it is great to get them involved.”

Toynbee said starting school before the Ravalli County Fair and Labor Day is good for elementary students.

“It is good to have a little bit of practice with that routine, then they get a break and then get to come back,” he said. “I think it is good for the staff too they get to see what they need to adjust in their class and get a break to do it. It’s good, it’s a win – especially if the weather is good. The first afternoon recess on Monday was held indoors due to rain.”

Kohn said after the fair Darby schools will probably see more students because that is when other Bitterroot Valley schools are starting.

On Thursday, every student and staff received a homemade from scratch Banana smoothie from the Darby Food Service.

McCrossin said the Darby school year is off to a great and earlier start to the school year.