By Ron VandenBoom
Show up at J-I High School during the lunch hour and you'll find Principal and Superintendent Mike Mikota in the gym playing basketball with the students.
It's not just a matter of supervising the students during their free time. Playing basketball gives him the opportunity to get to know the kids while giving him a shot at a little midday exercise.
"I don't know any other superintendent in the state that has a five-minute lunch before lunch and then comes in and opens up the gym so the kids can play," he said.
Mikota also likes to do what he calls "bus duty" watching the kids get on or off the bus and greeting them with a "good morning" or a "good evening."
It's partly for safety reasons, he says, but it's also a way for him to bond with the kids.
J-I High School serves the counties of Liberty and Hill as an educational institution and is also a major economic force.
"You have a lot of people employed and people tend to spend their money locally," Mikota said.
J-I is the largest single employer in Joplin and the role the school plays to the economic well-being of the community cannot be overestimated.
"It's not just important for J-I to survive," Mikota said. "It's important for Havre, it's important to Chester, it's important to Shelby. They get a lot of income from us."
Aside from being the community's primary employer, the school serves as a focal point of social and recreational activity. The school's sporting events are well-attended and supported.
The J-I Rams did very well in football last season and were one game away from playing for the state championship, Mikota said, adding that the school did very well in basketball last year and the girls basketball team continues to improve.
Of course, this is not news to most of the parents and other residents who regularly attend the ball games and other activities at the school. Mikota said he believes a higher percentage of J-I parents turn out for events than those in larger communities because more of the students are involved in activities. Class C schools are small enough to include more, and in some cases all, of the students in activities.
Smallness also works to the students' advantage because they receive more individual attention than is possible in larger classes.
Mikota has worked in all sizes of schools in Montana. "And I can't tell you how impressed I am with Class C," he said. "Smaller class sizes and fewer discipline problems means we're able to do things with kids that big schools just can't. Kids typically don't fall through the cracks."
Another thing Mikota believes can't be beat by any school, regardless of size, is the hot lunch program.
"It's absolutely a meal to die for," he said.