GREAT FALLS — Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen joined Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore, 341st Missile Wing Commander Colonel Anita Feugate Opperman, and other civic and education leaders from around the state on Friday bouncing around several schools in Great Falls. But the purpose of their visits was more than just to say hello and eat a catered lunch.
April 16 was Purple Up Day. While the entire month of April is the Month of the Military Child, Great Falls Public Schools used Friday to celebrate the strength and sacrifices of military families in the community, including students through the district who have active duty parents or other family members.
Three of the four schools on the tour are “Purple Star” schools. A Purple Star school has been designated as such by the Montana Military Interstate Children's Compact Commission, and it means that those schools have gone above and beyond to create more welcoming, inclusive environments for active military families. Currently, there are five Purple Star schools in Montana, and three of them, Loy Elementary, North Middle School, and CMR High School, are in Great Falls.
About 95% of Loy's student body are children in military families, and the district as a whole has more than 500 military students from 300 families. The district's JROTC program has 53 cadets between CMR and Great Falls High School.
The first stop on Friday’s tour was Loy Elementary School. There, Superintendent Arntzen visited several classes, heard presentations, and spoke to students about Purple Up day and the month of the military child.
Then, the group, which also included GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore, a few members of the GFPS Board of Trustees, and several airmen from Malmstrom Air Force Base, made their way to North Middle School. North Principal Tara Rosipal, student representatives, and other school officials showed off a purple pinwheel display outside of the school before heading inside with Superintendent Arntzen, Colonel Lisa Martinez, and others.
A few of North’s military students shared their stories with Arntzen and Martinez, who offered words of encouragement and advice in return. “These people around you are your village and they are there to help you,” said Colonel Martinez, Commander of the 341st Mission Support Group at Malmstrom. “And that is so important to have.”
Next, the group met up with 15-20 others at Great Falls High School for a tour of several of the school’s facilities, conversations with career readiness leaders and teachers, and lunch. The group snaked their way through the halls of Great Falls High, making frequent stops to admire CTE classrooms like the auto shop and woodshop stations.
While the group stopped for lunch, Colonel Feugate Opperman, commander and highest-ranking person on the base of more than 4,000 people, addressed the cadets, airmen, and school officials in attendance. “Without support like Great Falls Public Schools give to our families, I know that our military members wouldn’t feel nearly as at home or as comfortable as they do,” she said, praising and thanking Tom Moore and his staff for their work to make the district an accepting community for military families.
Superintendent Arntzen also spoke to the group while they gathered around a workbench in the auto stop as curious students looked on from afar. “It is a career, it’s an honorable pathway,” Arntzen said of joining the military. “I got to get recruiters into my 200 high schools because sometimes those doors are shuttered, so help me do that. Help me open that door.”
After lunch, part of the crowd made their way across town to their final destination, C.M. Russell High School. There, they were greeted by a sizable group made up of students, school officials, and military recruiters from the Army, Navy, Marines, and more.
Student representatives from CMR introduced a new program called “Student to Student”, which is designed to welcome incoming students, especially those coming with family members who have been transferred to Great Falls by the Air Force or Air National Guard, into the school and the community. The goal of the program, which was conceived by several military students who experienced first-hand the challenges of moving to and from cities as their parents are transferred between military installations, is to make it easier for incoming students in military families to enter into new situations, cities, and schools, and help them feel welcome.
“Student to Student is a program for bringing new students into our community and making them feel truly welcome,” explained CMR Junior, Abigail Carr, who is a member of a military family herself. “When I got to Great Falls, I was scared. I didn’t know many people, I knew my family friends, because, with Air Force, with the military in general, it’s small, so you keep friends. But I was scared, so I wanted to bring this program here and be able to make people feel truly welcome.”
Superintendent Arntzen said she wants to see all Montana schools earn the purple star designation, and follow the path that Loy, North, and CMR are already on.
The entire month of April is designated as the Month Of The Military Child. The event is called "Purple Up Day" because purple is the color often used to refer a mix of all military branches of service. There are two other Purple Star schools in Montana: Glacier High School in Kalispell, and Valley Christian in Missoula.