Educator Ashley Jenks
Canyon dweller and new K-12 librarian
What does it take to make a life in Big Sky? Ashley Jenks, the new K-12 librarian and mother of two little girls, is still figuring it out. For the past decade, Ashley worked as an elementary school teacher at Ophir. She met her husband Tyler when she was 13 years old back East in Kirby, Vermont. The duo recently had their second child Scout, who is seven months old, and they also have a little girl named Faye, who is three.
The Jenks, despite their shared hometowns, did not start dating until their 20s. “We actually went to high school together. I met him when I was 13. It’s kind of like a long twisty windy story. We were not high school sweethearts,” said Jenks.
Kirby is home to “more cows than people” explained Ashley, who grew as the oldest of four siblings. They spent a lot of time out of doors, riding four wheelers, fishing. Kirby’s still a small farming community with a population of 575.
“You know, I was so young when I left my home. I was 18 and excited to get out. And so, I do think that—I lived in Vegas, I lived in Boston—so some of those like experiences really shaped who I am now. I think I would of been like a quieter, more innocent person if I had never lived in those big cities. I guess if I had to take anything away, it’s like your sense of community is deeper. Like nobody locks their doors. If you have a question or you need something or you need help or something, it’s very normal to just like go up to anybody's door and like somebody will give you a ride home, or someone will help you get unstuck. So, in that sense it’s like there’s almost an unwritten rule of kinship among the people who live in a small area,” said Jenks.
Feeling the squeeze of small town life, Ashley left Kirby at 18. She moved to Las Vegas to attend college at the University of Nevada. A master’s degree later, Ashley left the dry red rocks of Nevada at 23 and moved to Montana. A guy named Tyler, who went to high school with her in Kirby, invited Jenks to come out.
“I was just going to go back to Vegas [after finishing her Masters of Arts and Education] and then I started talking to him [Tyler] and he was like, ‘Ugh, that sounds terrible. I live in Montana and it's amazing. You should just come here.’ And so, I was 23 and I was like, ‘Okay!’ Now we have a home, two babies, we have a life, we’re married. Kind of funny how things come together,” laughed Jenks.
Over the last decade, Ashley taught first grade at Ophir Elementary School and pursued a second Masters of Education in Curriculum and Design. “It is my belief that the school is the heart of the town,” said Jenks.
When local K-12 librarian Kathy House decided to retire after 35 plus years as an educator, Ashley decided it was time for a change up. She felt her calling.
“Well, I guess the first thing I want to say is, I think I was born for this job. I was the little kid who loved library. I loved reading. And I’m sure many many people can say the same thing but it’s kind of bizarre to me to like, I don’t know if you could even reflect on your own career and where you think you might want to be in 10 years, but like the longevity of this idea has always been with me... I’ve gone to school a lot and I have oodles of student loan debt. To be able to finally reach what I wanted to be doing with all this effort and dollars spent is like really exciting for me,” said Jenks.
However, Ashley struggled to explain to close friends and family what it means to be a librarian in 2021. Many folks asked her, “Oh, you’re going to be a librarian? Um, do you get paid as much?” It was almost like people saw the job as a downgrade from a classroom teacher, explained Jenks.
“If I had to say anything: people don’t understand that this was a wonderful promotion that I worked for myself and that a really big important role in public education is research and information literacy… I’m like a teacher of 400 kids instead of 20 kids,” said Jenks.
During the transition from the classroom to the library, Ashley and Tyler delivered a daughter to the world named Scout in 2021. She is seven months old now. In addition to COVID-19, the Jenks navigated what it means to be new parents with two youngsters in Big Sky. One of the challenges facing young families in the mountain town is childcare.
“Just about everybody I know did not grow up here. So, when you talk about raising kids, it ends up being almost that much harder because you’re doing it by yourself… He [Tyler] does about 50% of the parenting workload because he has to. There’s just no choice. We’ve got no one else to rely on. We are not alone. And there are so many families where that’s the case. You’re kind of like on an island by yourself raising your kids alone, which, if you look at history, that has never been the case. There have always been extended groups of families and people to rely on,” said Jenks.
Only two childcare options currently exist in Big Sky: Morningstar Learning Center and the Montessori school called Discovery Academy. If Big Sky wants to keep growing and supporting a new generation of young families—where both parents must maintain careers due to higher costs of living— there needs to be more local options.
Just the other day, for example, Ashley and Tyler panicked because Morningstar had to cancel daycare due to a potential COVID-19 case. Both parents had to go to work in the morning. Now they had nowhere to leave their seven-month-old Scout.
“I was panicking because it was like Sunday night and my husband and I have to go to work. That scenario is very real for everybody in town. I ended up calling one of the older retired neighbors and I was like ‘What are you doing tomorrow? Could you watch Scout?’ You kind of need to get through this like guilt or discomfort in asking because, like I said, we don’t have a choice,” said Jenks. COVID-19 has worsened these issues for local families through remote learning and the constant threat of staying home while sick.
Although most residents will get to know Ashley as the new K-12 librarian for the Big Sky School District, she is also known as the “dog collar lady” by a dedicated group of acolytes.
Ashely started making dog collars about seven years ago because her dog’s metal ID tags from PetSmart always broke off. She named her side hustle Alpine Dogs of Big Sky. Jenks spotted her collars while on vacation in New Mexico and California; she estimated she makes about 100 tags a summer to sell at the Farmer’s Market. With her hands full as a new parent to Scout and Faye, Ashley’s creative outlet is hibernating for the time being.