New Helena private school will be open for business this fall Education

When Emily Warhank had a conversation with her best friend about their wish for an alternative schooling option in Helena, she never thought she’d be the president of a private school board.

The mother of five just wanted a school that would let her kids have the autonomy to choose their own learning path.

But when she started asking other people about their interest and found that they felt the same way, she got more serious about the idea.

“Originally we were going to do like a homeschool co-op type thing,” Warhank said. But she ran into issues when she looked at laws about homeschooling in Montana.

So, she started looking into Montana’s laws around private schools. She put out a call to have a school board meeting, and the nine people who showed up took the board’s positions.

What was once just an idea snowballed, and became the new Free Roots Alternative Learning Center – a Helena-based private school that will be open for business starting in fall 2022.

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The school board, which Warhank is the president of, will be hiring two teachers in the coming weeks. The school is for grades K-8 and has capacity for 40 students. And just a couple of weeks ago, Free Roots secured a building for the school, located in the Helena Valley just past Bob’s Valley Market.

As of June 29, Warhank said there were still 12 spots available for the fall. The first day of Free Roots’ school year will be Aug. 22.

At Free Roots, students will study math and English in the morning with a teacher, have an hour-long lunch and then return to the classroom for electives in the afternoon. Those electives, Warhank said, will offer students a chance to study music, social studies and more. And, students will get to vote on what they want to learn too.

The school will follow a Montessori model as a base for curriculum, Warhank said. A Montessori school is one that offers students self-directed activities where students get to make choices about what they learn, according to Montessori Northwest, an organization based in Portland, Oregon.

“Then we have multiple other options for kids depending on their learning style,” Warhank said. “Like hands-on, we have ones that have lots of worksheets. We have multiple different types of curricula so that way we can fit the needs and interests of each kid.”

Brittany Johnson, the school board’s secretary, also said Free Roots will offer a chapel service during the school day. But that service will be optional for families.

Johnson’s also been in charge of organizing the school’s non-profit paperwork, and said she’s learned a lot about that process. Since the school is a non-profit, Johnson said, all of its funding has to come from donations, and school board members aren’t paid.

“There’s been a lot of time and financial resources and all of that for the board members,” Warhank said. “They’ve been really putting in a lot of effort.”

Free Roots recently held a silent auction fundraiser and local businesses donated items. Warhank said donations are also how the school has furniture for next year. And, the Doubletree has been donating its boardroom as a meeting space for Free Roots’ school board.

Warhank’s children will be attending the school in the fall. The school board’s vice president, Chloe Moorman, also said she has a first grader who is going to Free Roots come August.

“I’m excited that she’ll have an individualized curriculum and be able to learn at her own pace, because she can be really advanced in some things and not in other things,” Moorman said. “I just feel like she’ll get a more well-rounded education this way.”

For Warhank, the experience of starting Free Roots has been a positive one that she’s learned a lot from – from raising money, to curriculum, to laws about schools in Montana.

She said she hopes Free Roots will be around in the Helena community for years to come, and that in the future, she’d love to see it expand to include pre-school and high school too. She said they are also hoping to bring it to other places in the state.

For now, Warhank’s just glad that everyone involved has come together for Free Roots to become operational.

“If you have an idea, you can follow through and make it happen,” Warhank said.

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