Building a new school, inside & out

(ABOVE) Rendering of new Moorhead High School. (Zerr Berg Architects.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Windows. Think of them as a symbol of the new direction in which Moorhead High School is headed.

Every classroom in the new Moorhead High School academic wings now taking shape on the north side of the nearly 60-year-old school will be flooded with natural light – a big change from the old areas in which students will still study for the upcoming 2022-23 school year.

But more vistas – less obvious, but equally clear – are also opening up in the educational futures of Moorhead’s teen-age students. Beginning last year, administrators and teachers have been revamping their approach to secondary education. By the time the student body is fully settled in the Phase One side of the brand-new building, they’ll also benefit from a resdesigned curriculum centered around career choice and relevant classes, following multiple pathways in six academies that will shed new light on the opportunities that await them after graduation.

That’s the vision that former high school principal Dave Lawrence lays out as he talks about what lies ahead, both in terms of the handsome $88 million city high school that is rising on the same site as the outdated 1960s facility it will replace … and the enhanced educational program that will take place inside and at the MHS Career Academy six minutes to the southwest.

Lawrence has spent the last two years on a four-year special assignment with the school system, working on not only the most massive construction project in Moorhead schools’ history but also on the overhaul of what goes on inside. It’s his 22nd year in the district – following eight as principal and 13 as assistant principal of the high school after three at the former South Junior High. He previously taught and coached for nine years in Park Rapids.

“While our new facility is coming up, we’ve been working on the academic side as well,” he says. “It’s what’s happening inside those walls that we’re even more excited about.” The new approach focuses on helping students make connections between their interests, their academic studies and the futures they may pursue. The first two of their four high school years will be mainly exploratory/ During their last, they can follow career cluster pathways in which they can prepare to follow the interests they’ve chosen.

The school is working in partnership with area businesses and industries to develop classes and internships for in-depth experience. “We didn’t have to go looking for them. They’ve been willing and ready to partner with us. They were already looking for ways to expose kids to what they can offer. This helps us but also helps them.”

Progress on Phase One 

Meanwhile, Gehrtz Construction Services has nearly completed the skeleton of the new academic wings at the high school. Phase One, when complete (projected to be in late 2023) will not only include classrooms and rooms designed for collaborative teaching and classwork, but also a spacious, sunny commons area, a swimming pool and a gymnasium with a capacity of 3,000 spectators.

Phase Two will begin following its completion, beginning with tearing down the areas where classes will be held for at least the next 18 months. After that, plans include construction of a 1,000-seat theatre, areas for the fine arts, and administration offices. The Sports Center and fieldhouse are also due for renovation. The second phase is expected to be done in late 2024 or early 2025.

The completed high school has been designed for 2,200 students. Some 800 will simultaneously study at the Career Academy, shuttled between the two locations every day by a total of eight buses. High school enrollment is currently around 1,900.

Lawrence says that supply-chain hiccups and unexpected events like Covid-19 have added uncertainty to the project timetable. Despite that, it’s close to the original schedule.

\The school system has taken steps to work around expected delays and rising prices. One was bordering furniture for the new school ahead of its completion. “We’ve tried to beat price increases by ordering up front, even though we won’t use it for a year and a half,” he explains. About one-third has been delivered, Lawrence says it is in storage at the Operations Center, the present high school, and 

“wherever we could find any open space.”

“We saved a significant amount of money,” he adds.

One big improvement when school starts Aug. 29, Lawrence notes, is that the four-year construction of the SE Main/20-21st Street underpass is finally at an end. That direct route will not only shorten the commute to school; it will cut a few minutes off the 2-mile shuttle between the high school and career academy.

He doesn’t expect any significant disruption to students’ and teachers’ routines at school, either, with the gargantuan project rising just outside their classrooms. “We’re already a year into this, and they’re used to the hammers and the banging,” he reflects. “It’s like the big underpass. People figured out the best way to get around it and moved on.”

Of the academic realignment as well as the bricks-and-mortar project, he says. “A lot of this was developed by our task forces a few years ago, leading up to passing the referendum. Community residents, teachers, administrators and students all contributed to developing the best path for us to follow. Now we are doing our very best to follow through on their work.

“We want to hold true and do right by Moorhead. This community supports education.” 

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