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REACHing for the stars: Grassroots effort underway to replace Dayton Elementary School

| December 4, 2022 12:00 AM

With the goal of raising $20 million in five years, a grassroots organization is working to replace Lake County’s aging Dayton Elementary School with a state-of-the-art academic building that will double as a community center.

For more than 110 years, Dayton Elementary School has served as a pillar of the upper west shore communities from Big Arm to Lakeside. But a growing population, including many young families, exposed enough of the school’s shortcomings to prompt parents, school board members and community leaders to found a nonprofit aimed at erecting a successor, according to Kaci Kelly Santos, who serves as executive director of the new organization.

The Rural Education and Community Heritage Foundation, which goes by REACH for short, officially became a nonprofit organization on Jan. 12. Its goal, after fundraising, is putting up a facility that will offer a gym, fields, greenhouse, agricultural center, theater, playground, kitchen and staff housing. In addition to serving students, organizers say the project will serve as an asset for the community, incorporating a health clinic, dog park, public library, and after-hour fitness and meeting spaces.

Santos said that the foundation already has raised more than $1 million.

“People have been so generous and we’ve already had several donations,” she said. “Someone donated ten acres which was appraised at around $475,000. Utilities for the land are being donated. Another person wrote a check for $400,000 and said, ‘I want this to go to the elementary school.’ And recently, someone donated roughly $60,000 worth of gravel.”

Santos said the group hoped to break ground on the gym in the spring.

DESPITE DAYTON Elementary School’s history in the community, the building is unsuitable for upgrades, according to REACH’s website.

There is no gym, no cafeteria, no library and no community center. There is no bus system and no dedicated space for sports, art, language or music. The existing school combines grades due to budgetary staffing limitations. It is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And it has limited bathroom facilities as the sewage system is near capacity.

The new school will offer community service opportunities, after school programs, sports and extended day services as well as advanced learning technologies. It’s earned the praise of Carolyn Hall, superintendent of Lake County Schools, which oversees Dayton Elementary.

“As the county superintendent, I know well the difficulty for school districts to make improvements to the district without adding significant tax burdens to their constituency,” Hall wrote in a letter of support to the REACH Foundation. “This foundation will set a positive future for this little school district allowing some long set-aside dreams to come true.”

Santos hopes that with the funding for the project coming from the outside, district officials can put their dollars toward academics.

“This also frees up the school district to focus their resources on hiring top quality educators and curriculum, and not have to worry about the facilities,” she said. “If we have a new school and facility and more students come to it, then the school district will get more federal funding per student and then they could pay teachers more.”

According to Santos, this is the first time in Montana that a foundation is pulling together private funds to allow a school district to lease their facilities.

“The community has expressed willingness to donate land, time, labor, funds and expertise to the project and dollars will be spent more effectively on the private side,” said Santos.

A&E Designs will be the architecture firm involved with building and design. The firm’s recent portfolio includes the engineering building at Montana State University, replacement of the Lolo Elementary and Middle Schools, and the remodel and expansion of Winifred School in Winifred, Montana, but this will be the first time that they provide services for a school using private funds.

“We’re shooting for the stars,” Santos said. “It will take a while to build, and we won’t see students in it for another two years unless a donor says, ‘We want to build the elementary school facilities,’ then it could happen way sooner than we think. It all depends on when those donations come. There’s a lot of momentum and donating any amount is super helpful.”

The REACH Foundation can be contacted at hello@reachmontana.org or by phone at 406-250-8453. For more information or to make a donation, visit reachmontana.org. Checks can also be made out to PO Box 42, Dayton, MT 59914.

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Future site of Upper West Shore Elementary School, the successor to the Dayton Elementary School, is on 10 acres of donated land.(Courtesy photo)

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Current Dayton Elementary School students jump off of a donated gravel pile. Over 1,429 yards of gravel were donated to the REACH Foundation for the project. (Courtesy photo)

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A conceptual design of the new school’s exterior. (Courtesy photo)