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City eyes Lowell Elementary as neighborhood community center for programs, child care

The use of Lowell Elementary School as a community center would offer programs before and after school, and on weekends, through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and other organizations. It would be the first such center in Missoula. (Annisa Keith/UM Community News Service)

Members of the Missoula City Council this week approved an agreement between Missoula County Public Schools and the city to use Lowell Elementary as a neighborhood community center.

The center would ultimately “support student success while at the same time investing in the overall health and vitality of the neighborhood,” the referral states. The use of the school as a community center would offer programs before and after school, and on weekends, through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and other organizations.

“We are making a true investment in equity in the school and the students,” said Donna Gauckler, director of the city’s parks department. “Then people who live in and around that school in the Northside and Westside, who have an immense amount of pride about their school in their neighborhood, is where we feel we can, over time, make positive changes for a healthier, more successful environment.”

The school community center would be the first of its kind in Missoula. A 2017 health equity study of Missoula neighborhoods found that residents in the Westside and Northside neighborhoods felt there was a lack of things to do, and a community center was identified as a partial solution.

Gauckler said “pillar one” of the community center was already implemented in the months of September through December using Montana COVID Relief Child Care funds. Those funds are no longer available.

The childcare program – one of several programs eventually available at the community center – would provide about 100 students with staffing and support after school according to Gauckler. This was in tangent with the Parks and Recreation’s Base Camp, a child care program at the former Missoula public library.

“These have been super well received,” Gauckler said. “We have seen participation from families that we typically have not seen before. A lot of families are essential workers who have no choice but to have their kids taken care of somewhere, especially during hybrid schooling.”

The council approved $91,652 in funding for the community center in the FY21 budget.

If the agreement between MCPS and the City Council passes a final vote on Feb. 22, the funding will be used to help pay for a coordinator, site supervisors and parks and recreation program staff to create and maintain programs at the community center. The community center coordinator will also apply for grants to keep the programs sustainable.

Gaukler said the community center will offer the already tested after school programs, early childhood play space, “extended learning opportunities” for all ages, family and community engagement, and a variety of social services. Such programs and services will be available after school, from 6 to 10 p.m. on weekdays, weekends, holidays and summers.

The program might serve as a pilot program to evaluate the potential of community centers in other areas of Missoula, with community centers currently outlined in master plans like the Downtown Master Plan and the Sx͏ʷtpqyen (Mullan) Master Plan.

“We want positive change to happen without gentrification with the people who may maintain their style of life in their neighborhood, and we believe this is one of those important tools that can really make a dent in our community,” Gauckler said. “At some point, it may be something that we can repeat throughout our community.”

The community center plans have received input from a variety of organizations including the United Way, North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC), Western Montana Flagship Program, City-County Health Department Health Equity programs, and the Missoula Food Bank, among others. The Missoula Food Bank has already been providing a food pantry and would continue to do so as a neighborhood food pantry.

Council member Julie Merritt said she was frustrated that the council didn’t get a chance for more input, but still “wholeheartedly” supports the community center.

“The frustration that I have here that I just want to put out there, that has been a common frustration that I’ve had since I’ve been on council, is that we have things put in front of us that are already done deals,” she said. “And we’re asked to up or down without having any input on the particulars, and this is one that I feel really passionate about. So I’m a little disappointed that we don’t get a little more input since we approved the budget.”

Council member Heidi West, who is involved with NMCDC, said it’s “amazing and serendipitous” to have gotten to this point with the community center.

“I see nothing but potential for what is going to happen here,” West said. “I’m really excited to get to the point where we can start implementing the programming, and transform this from an idea to an actual actual thing that people participate in.”