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Gracie Johnson didn’t want to be a pilot. At least, not when she first walked into her eighth-grade science class at Billings’ Ben Steele Middle School. Her teacher, Patrick Kenney, quickly tapped her for a student project building an experimental aircraft at a private hangar, and while she found that work interesting, Johnson initially resisted Kenney’s encouragement to step into a cockpit for a test flight. Eventually she agreed.

“It just spiraled from there,” Johnson told Montana Free Press this month.

At age 15, Johnson began pursuing her private pilot’s license. Two years and more than 100 flight hours later, she has it, and after graduating from high school a year early, she’s now enrolled at Rocky Mountain College in Billings — class of 2027 — en route to more advanced piloting credentials. It’s an educational pathway Johnson has had to blaze largely on her own, since the Billings school district has no formal classes in aviation. Doing so required a minimum of 40 flight hours acquired through a private instruction company, 10 of which she had to fly solo. But it’s a path she took seriously after recognizing flying not only as her “passion,” but her future.

“I kind of am thinking maybe firefighting or search and rescue, or professional flying for small companies,” Johnson said. “Maybe even bush flying. I’d love to go to Alaska at one point or another and fly as a bush pilot there.”

Johnson estimated the cost of securing her pilot’s license at about $10,000. Of that, she said, roughly $2,000 (the equivalent of about 10 flight hours) was covered by a state program known as Advanced Opportunities, created to help students chase individual career goals and offset out-of-pocket expenses for their families. According to data from the Office of Public Instruction, which administers the program, the number of Montana school districts participating in Advanced Opportunities has grown rapidly since lawmakers first approved it in 2019, from 10 during the 2020-21 school year to 62 last year.

Stories like Johnson’s emerged at the Capitol this spring as the Montana Legislature debated whether to bolster funding for the initiative. House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, proposed raising the state’s annual spending on Advanced Opportunities from $1.7 million to $4 million, and increasing the share of funds districts had to devote to family out-of-pocket expenses to 75%. The bill passed both chambers with strong bipartisan support and was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May.

The bill’s passage — part of a sweeping package of bipartisan education reforms — came as welcome news to Bo Bruinsma, career outreach director at Billings Public Schools. The district was an early participant in the program in 2020 and has consistently relied on program funds to cover an array of costs that would have otherwise fallen on individual students. For example, Bruinsma said, Billings has directed roughly 25% of its Advanced Opportunities money to cover college course expenses for high school students who want to take more than the six dual credits currently offered for free by the Montana University System. He estimated the district’s participation rate for pursuit of those extra credits has grown over the past three years from 200 students to more than 450.

“We know students would not be able to afford it, or they would make calculations of not taking dual credit based off of how much it would cost,” Bruinsma said. “We’ve taken that [pressure] off, and what do you know? More students are getting more credit walking into college.”

Bruinsma added that the district has also used the funds at the middle school level to offset the costs of prep courses for standardized tests, and to cover expenses for students taking high school diploma equivalency exams. But he was quick to note that the bulk of the money goes toward overcoming financial barriers for student applicants exploring their individual career goals. In some cases that means helping pay for professional certification in fields like emergency medicine and nursing. In the case of 2023 Billings Career Center graduate Jase Roods, it was as simple as a pair of steel-toe boots.

Roods grew up on his family’s farm east of Billings, and decided early in his schooling that a job in the trades suited him better than a four-year college track. Speaking with MTFP, he said he enjoyed his automotive and engineering classes in the Billings district, and by age 16 was working part-time for a local boat mechanic. But his real interest lay in welding.

“Working that molten glowing orange puddle of metal and connecting two things was just fascinating to me,” Roods said. “The science of it really, really grabbed my attention off the bat. There was nothing I wanted more than being underneath that hood.”

Pursuing that highly technical path beyond the four semesters of welding he could take at the career center proved challenging. Just walking in the door of a professional shop requires specialized safety equipment that can cost hundreds of dollars. So he appealed to the district for assistance, and Advanced Opportunities paid the bill, allowing him to get a welding job with the Billings-based fabrication company American Steel during his senior year. Eight months later, Roods said, he’s still there, fitting clip plates to a 49-foot structural column for a new building in Havre.

It’s not that his family couldn’t have managed the cost of boots, a hood, fabrication squares and levels, Roods’ mother, Stephanie Roods, told MTFP. But for her son, it was a “weight off his shoulders.” 

“I think it was kind of a relief for him, and kind of a neat little push that made him realize, ‘This is pretty cool, this is what I want to do,” she said.

As Montana’s largest school district, Bruinsma said, Billings has managed to draw a considerable amount of funding through Advanced Opportunities — more than $351,000 last year alone, according to OPI data. For districts with smaller student populations, the allocations are far smaller on paper, but have nonetheless generated similar dividends. Since 2021, the Hamilton School District has utilized Advanced Opportunities funds to expand its professional internship offerings for students and support dual-credit enrollment at Bitterroot College. 

Special Program Director Bryan Dufresne said the money also helped students in Hamilton High School’s commercial drone class last year obtain their drone pilot licenses through the Federal Aviation Administration. Another student, he added, applied to the district for Advanced Opportunities funding because he “wants to be a ring maker.” The district wasn’t sure at first how serious the student was, Dufresne said, but by his second year’s application he’d developed two internships on his own and built a professional website. That was enough to convince a review board to help him pay for additional equipment to “push his ring-making to the next level.”

“Every single penny he’s made so far in his ring-making he’s put directly back into the business,” Dufresne said. “It was neat to see a kid who is so driven, and also the resume he put together was unbelievable.”

Throughout the 2023 session, lawmakers and supporters of HB 257 characterized the Advanced Opportunities program as part of a broader statewide push to encourage trades-based education among students. For Dufresne and Bruinsma, there’s an added benefit to removing financial barriers for individual students, one that signals a school’s awareness of their interests and makes education more relevant to their particular goals. 

As a licensed pilot now logging three to four days a week in the air in furtherance of her professional aspirations, Johnson agrees.

“We need more people that are going after technical fields and who have a true passion for things outside of school,” she said. “Budget is definitely a really big halter for a lot of students. They don’t think they can do things like be a pilot or go into another demanding career field because of money restrictions.”


Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...