After 29 years of working with the Butte School District, the city’s education power couple has decided to retire.
When Larry and Maureen Driscoll announced the 2017-2018 school year would be their last, many were surprised. But the principal-science teacher duo have been planning this transition for years.
“Four years ago, we said this is our freshman year,” Maureen said, laughing. “Then it just happened.”
In Uptown Butte’s Oro Fino coffee shop, Larry and Maureen talked about their teaching experiences. They taught through the No Child Left Behind Act and the boom in technology, through fluctuating student populations associated with Butte’s economic highs and lows. They said these experiences forced them to adapt constantly to meet the needs of Butte’s students. Now the school district is grasping for how it will adapt to their retirements.
Larry Driscoll was born into the Butte Public School District. Never mind that the Driscoll family has been affiliated with Butte’s schools since 1938 — Larry’s birth certificate lists the superintendent’s office address as his home: 111 N. Montana St.
Although Larry spent the last 20 years as either vice principal or principal of East Middle School, he is more than just a school administrator. He student taught at West back when it was a middle school, subbed for three years, and taught special education and social studies at East, experiences that were really important to Larry, according to East science teacher Karen Alley.
“His decisions were always based on what was best for the kids,” Alley said. “He never forgot where he came from.”
Several East faculty members met to talk about Larry and his impact on their school, including Alley. They talked about how he was always the first person you saw as you walked through the building each morning, how he established a very positive culture where students and teachers enjoyed coming to school, and how he was an incredible resource for everyone in the district due to his institutional knowledge. At the end of their conversation, they were able to boil down Larry’s core values and lasting impacts into two words: consistency and fairness.
“I knew I could always talk to him. He would always have a conversation with you, and if you were having a bad day, he would always ask you about it,” former East student Kobe Moreno said. “It’s hard to imagine the school without him.”
This fall, Larry will be replaced by his protégé. Keith Miller, East’s former vice principal, has been by Larry’s side for 12 years. Miller says the two spent lots of time together outside of meetings, sharing cafeteria and detention duties and more.
“It took a while for me to understand it, but Larry always said East was a working school,” Miller said. “He is a man of great integrity and honesty. If I am a quarter as effective as he was, I’ll be successful.”
According to Miller, two of the greatest cultural impacts Larry had on East were his support of a research-based bullying prevention program and a striving readers program. Miller plans to expand these programs and continue to grow the culture Larry has established.
Even though he’s starting to get used to being on a vacation that’s never going to end, Larry says he still worries about East. He’s already been seen around the building and school garden multiple times this summer.
“It becomes a big part of your life,” Larry said. “It’s like a ship; you have to make sure it keeps floating and that everyone gets their needs met.”
That’s why Larry’s retirement plans include helping with public relations for the school safety bond, the $35-million proposed plan to enhance elementary school security and significantly renovate East Middle School.
“It needs it. The building is 63 years old. It needs a bit of an upgrade to make it competitive with the rest of the state,” Larry said. “I want to hang around for that.”
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Unlike Larry, Maureen didn’t start out in education. She went through three years of botany at the University of Montana before she added education credits onto her course load.
“I remember my mom saying I should probably look into some sort of day job,” Maureen said. “There just weren’t a lot of job opportunities for a botanist.”
Maureen started teaching science for the Butte School District in 1989, and she’s earned quite the reputation since then. Former student Connor Cunningham said he’d always hear about how hard her tests were in the hallways even before he took her classes.
“Some people were kind of intimidated by her because she’s all business, but I never was,” Cunningham said. “She had a great sense of humor and was always there to help you when you needed it.”
Superintendent Judy Jonart said Maureen was like a buzzing bee. “I just remember watching Maureen go into Butte High School with her arms full, excited to teach. She was always about the classroom.”
Jonart said the impact Maureen has had on high school chemistry in Butte is unmatched. When Jonart was the district’s curriculum director, Maureen was one of the first high school faculty members to embrace the dual credit program, where students can earn two college credits for taking advanced high school classes.
Recently, Jonart received an email from the chair of Montana State University’s chemistry department stating that because students out of Maureen’s college-level chemistry class were so well prepared, the university wanted to offer students more than two credits for Maureen’s course.
“They wanted to be sure we were acknowledging the work Maureen had done. The chair even said she wished her own daughter had access to Maureen’s course,” Jonart said. “She has a statewide legacy.”
Through interactive teaching and real-world examples, Maureen inspired her students to see chemistry as more than a periodic table of elements. Elsie Dickerson said that until she took chemistry with Maureen, she didn’t know what she wanted to do after high school. Now she plans to attend Boise State University in the fall to pursue biochemistry.
“I am really sad for the students who won’t get to have Mrs. Driscoll. I feel so lucky,” Elsie said.
Even Larry recognizes his wife’s impact. “She’s the best teacher in the state. She’d never say it, but she is,” Larry said.
Maureen says sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh my God, what have I done?” She knows September will be hard and that she’ll miss her labs. But she’s ready for the next phase. Larry is, too.
“They’re going to miss him,” Maureen says, fidgeting with her coffee cup in the Oro Fino.
“No, they’re going to miss her!” Larry responds. They both look at each other and smile.
“Well, it’s not like we’re going to fall off the face of the earth,” Maureen says. “We’ll still see people. Now we have time to expand beyond the school district.”
Larry nods and smiles. “Time is on our side.”