Bozeman Field School

Bozeman Field School student Kayla Wales surveys the flora on the Upper Missouri River Breaks during a five-day orientation canoe trip. The Bozeman Field School leads four similar overnight trips per year as part of their curriculum.

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Finn Wallace got to start 10th grade by paddling a canoe and camping in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument with other teens attending Bozeman’s newest private school.

“A highlight for me was rounding a corner on the Missouri River at sunrise, and the sun was shining like a beautiful huge red ripe tomato, with hoodoos jutting up from the banks of the river,” Wallace told Sam Critchlow, head of the new Bozeman Field School. “It was awesome.”

For Wallace and growing numbers of Gallatin Valley kids, “back to school” means attending a private or Christian school.

Just as Bozeman’s public schools are setting enrollment records, numbers are up at most local private schools. The choice of schools is also expanding.

Gallatin County last year reported a record 1,669 kids attending private schools and home schools.

That included 270 teens in private high schools, 751 students in private elementary or preschools, and 648 home-schooled students, according to the county superintendent of schools office. This year’s numbers haven’t yet been reported.

The Bozeman Field School is the newest addition to the area’s educational options. It kicked off the school year for an inaugural group of ninth- and 10th-graders with an expedition, paddling canoes and camping in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

An independent, secular school, the Field School is the only high school in the Gallatin Valley that isn’t either public or religious. It plans to focus on “place-based, expeditionary learning.”

Tuition was set at $17,900 a year, though an anonymous donor provided $700,000 for scholarships for the first four years.

Petra Academy, off South Cottonwood Road, is starting its 22nd year with a record enrollment of 205 students, said Craig Dunham, headmaster. Petra, which offers a classical and Christian education, started the school year Tuesday with a ceremony, bagpipes and its first soccer game.

“It’s an exciting time for education,” Dunham said. He sees the expansion of private schools as a result of the county’s overall population growth, plus people moving here from large metropolitan areas who want the kinds of schools they had in the past.

Tuition at Petra runs $7,250 a year for elementary grades and $7,725 for seventh to 12th grades. About 35 percent of students receive financial aid. Petra also has a new playground for elementary kids this year and is offering high school kids a dual-enrollment computer science class with Gallatin College.

The biggest local private school and one of the oldest is Manhattan Christian School, in its 111th year. It has 319 students in preschool to 12th grade this year, said Patrick DeJong, superintendent and elementary principal.

Though not a record, DeJong said, “Enrollment is up about 8 percent.” Manhattan Christian’s preschool is full and it had to add a second section of kindergarten.

“We know in general about 10 percent of the population is looking for education other than public schools,” DeJong said. He attributes the growth of private schools to “the general population explosion in the valley.”

The cost of education at Manhattan Christian is $9,425, but it offers need-based financial aid and most families volunteer at the school, which brings tuition down to $7,625 a year for the high school or $7,125 at the elementary grades.

Manhattan Christian’s growth also benefits from having a reputation for offering a solid education, DeJong said, plus arts, music and a strong athletics program.

Heritage Christian School, in Bozeman on Durston Road, has about 193 students this year, or 14 more than last year, said Gerry Goede, school administrator.

The growth “has been very encouraging,” Goede said. New this year, Heritage Christian has added a 7 a.m. “zero” period so students can take a college and careers class to prepare them for jobs and testing, interviewing and resume writing. Its soccer field opened last year and its new track is 75 percent finished.

Headwaters Academy, an independent, secular middle school, has 39 students enrolled in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, said Faye McDonough, interim head of school. Headwaters offers an alternative for kids who aren’t comfortable in Bozeman’s public middle schools, which hold around 750 students each.

Headwaters also begins the school year with outdoor education, McDonough said. Each grade gets to go backpacking to Heather Lake. Some people have the perception that families have to be rich to send kids to the school, she said, but it offers financial aid.

The oldest private school, Mount Ellis Academy, is a Seventh-day Adventist school founded in 1902, but it’s open to anyone, said Michael Lee, principal. It has about 60 students in high school this year, who come from all over the state, the Northwest and the globe. Some live in dorms or with host families.

Mount Ellis also emphasizes outdoor activities. This school year started off with a trip to Glacier National Park, with high school students hiking, camping, hearing bear lectures and seeing the solar eclipse.

“It was fantastic,” Lee said.

Other local private schools include: Bozeman Christian, Bozeman Summit School, Cottonwood Day School, Divine Mercy Academy, World Family School and several Montessori schools. A complete list is on the Gallatin County school superintendent’s website, (

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or


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