HAYS - Two years ago, Hays-Lodge Pole Public Schools were wracked with tumult and dissention.
Saturday, community members were at the school with teachers and school officials, taking part in an event with a community feed, dancing, listening to music and chatting.
It was what everyone called "a new beginning."
The pessimism of the past had made way for a sense of optimism as the district takes on its many challenges.
The reasons for the change in morale are many - a new school board, a new superintendent, and most importantly, a $1.5 million federal grant administered through the Montana Office of Public Instruction that will get the district moving in the right direction.
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau was on hand for Saturday's celebration, promising district residents her agency will be partners with the schools until things improve.
Three Montana schools are already taking part in the School Improvement Grant program, and students, teachers and administrators wore green T-shirts with SIG logos to show their support of the program.
The school was chosen because of the plight the school found itself in two years ago.
The district had the second-worst test scores in the state, and the school board was badly divided. For a while there was no superintendent, and there was doubt as to who, if anyone, was in charge.
Juneau said under the SIG program, OPI will provide mentors to the student body, faculty, the superintendent and the school board as well as a community outreach workers to provide guidance in how to set a new course for the district.
She was convinced that over the three-year life of the grant, academic achievement and the morale of the school and the community will increase. That has happened in other districts taking part in the program, she said.
"From where we were, the only way to go was up," said school board president Corey Morgan.
The way the school board operates has changed dramatically in recent years, he said.
"It seems like we are always on the road, learning more about schools," he told a reporter.
Students, administrators and teachers have gotten on board, he said. Saturday's meeting was a way to present the program to the community at large, he said, and he was pleased by the reaction.
"We are not a top-down school board," he said. "We want the community to provide input."
He invited the crowd Saturday to attend school board meetings and voice their ideas.
Superintendent Margaret Campbell, who was brought in as the first step in restoring order in the district, said she has been encouraged by the reaction so far.
There was some resistance from some teachers at the idea that OPI may want them to change the way they teach, she said. But the qualms have been eased, she said, and the faculty is on board.
"I've been amazed by the reaction from the students," she said. "It's far better than I could have imagined."
But, she said, most of the hard work is still ahead.
One goal, she said, is to get back many of the students who left for Harlem, Dodson and other schools during the Hays-Lodge Pole disarray.
"I don't blame them for leaving," she said. "But our message to the students and their parents is 'it's time to come home.'"
Under the program, she stressed, the district and its residents will be partners with OPI, she said.
In other states, the state sometimes takes control of troubled schools, but nothing like that will take place in Hays-Lodge Pole, Campbell said.
One of the first things the OPI team discovered was that the district's technology was woefully inadequate, she said. That problem is already being rectified, she said. New equipment is being purchased.
Those most affected by the changes brought on by SIG are among the most supportive, said Brandon Bradley, an HLP senior. He and Tia Zander are the student representative on the SIG Committee.
"I'm very optimistic," he said.
A native of Browning, he moved to Hays-Lodge Pole when he was in seventh grade and said he has enjoyed Hays very much.
His involvement with SIG has helped him to see the potential in his school.
He is especially interested in seeing technology improved.
"Technology is the future," he said, and offers students the greatest opportunity for jobs.
Brenda Essert, the only school board member remaining from the troubled times, echoed the feeling that this was "a new beginning."
"We are all pulling together. ... We are all going in the same direction," she said.
"I just want this to be the kind of school it was when I was a student here," she said. "It was a great school."