Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Moorhead High School’s new Career Academy is packed with wall-to-wall opportunities for the young Spuds who have been the first to enter its doors this autumn. But getting those doors open has been an education in itself.
“A week before school started, I wouldn’t have believed we’d be ready,” Principal Josh Haag confides. “This was a major construction zone Aug. 23. The construction crew wouldn’t even let us in for a staff meeting. I thought, ‘No way will we be in here next week.’” But after a week holding their breath, Josh – along with teachers, staff and, most important of all, the students – walked through the doors of an airy, modern new facility … 174,000 square feet dedicated to preparing for hot careers, today and tomorrow, equipped with the latest in computers and technical tools and ready to welcome 1,200 freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors to the promising school year ahead.
In just over 13 months, an empty big-box emporium has been turned into a state-of-the-art center for learning. The MHS Career Academy is part one of the campaign to set new standards in secondary education for the families of Moorhead. Along with the high school now just beginning to take shape north of the 50-year-old edifice at 2300 Fourth Ave. S., the academy introduces something unique: One proud, unified school in two sparkling structures designed to enhance learning.
The Career Academy site looked deceptively tranquil from the street during much of the year it was under construction. Zerr-Berg Architects and Gehrtz Construction maintained the shell of the old Sam’s Club. But inside, the sprawling first floor was stripped down to the bones and reconstructed as spacious labs and classrooms for the entire range of vocationally oriented studies. A 30,000-square-foot mezzanine was added, too, as the home of the district’s Alternative Learning Center.
When the school year started on Aug. 30, three-fourths of the main floor was ready for occupancy. But not quite. Workers are still putting finishing touches on half-raw edges. Equipment and furnishings are still being installed in many areas, some of it new, other units relocated from the old school. Students are sometimes involved in finishing touches, like welding classes painting lockers and construction students tackling some smaller remaining tasks. The building has been designed so that each quarter of its space can be shut off and used independently; the noise of construction crews still thumps and whines from the final quadrant, expected to be complete in time for the beginning of second semester on Nov. 1.
“When I walk in, I see all the stuff that’s not quite done,” the principal confesses. “But when the kids walk through the doors, you hear nothing except how beautiful it all is.”
A walk through the halls – distinctively decorated in Spud-centric orange, grey and black – offers visitors a glimpse of what 1,200 teens travel here to master every day. The commons area inside the main doors is furnished with seating pods, tables and chairs – welcoming the 300 who disembark from five buses every 84 minutes, but also providing seating for lunches served from the adjacent kitchen.
A trip down the corridor to the left leads to the Health Sciences Lab. It’s furnished with hospital-style beds and equipment, all shared by nearby M State; that school’s post-secondary health students are studying to become certified nursing assistants here, taking over the facilities after high school students have left for the day.
Classrooms and labs accommodate a variety of subject areas – business studies, computers, FACS (Family and Consumer Science). Three computer labs are equipped with high-end computers and monitors to handle tasks that Chromebooks – every student has one – are ill-equipped to tackle. The Integrated Technical Center offers the most advanced services, including access to 3-D printers; now staffed by adults, it will also eventually have students on hand to help their peers. Foods classes work from well-equipped kitchens. The largest is reserved for the culinary classes Haag says will begin preparing Spuds for the booming hospitality industry.
Toward the north end of the building are what Haag calls the “hard-core labs.” Among them are professional-caliber welding, metal fabrication, woods and construction spaces. During these first weeks, teachers have often turned to classroom-style teaching while they await installation of the tools in coming days.
The small-engine lab, Haag points out, demonstrates a change in direction. Long the domain of lawnmowers and snowblowers, the Career Academy has turned its focus on power sports – marine motors, boats, Jet-Skis, ATVs and other devices that spark young people’s imagination. It’s separated by a drive-in washing bay from what he calls the “Taj Ma-Auto.” The automotive lab features four high lifts, four floor bays and an alignment rack easily accommodate nine vehicles, “and without any dings when you open the doors,” he adds.
Then there are the seven flex labs, all equipped with power and water and ready to be put to use in any way that’s needed. Two are dedicated for art classes, which await the move back at the high school.
Other areas of study are still in the planning stages. Among them: Robotics, aviation and agriculture, which MHS is resuming after a 30- or 40-year absence.
At the Career Academy, the shift changes every 84 minutes. Five school buses shuttle students from the high school to the academy on a tightly managed schedule. Meanwhile, five more are at curbside at the Academy to carry busloads back to the high school, where core courses – English, math, science, social studies – continue to be taught. Unlike the vocational courses, these are scheduled in “skinnies,” 40-minute periods, two per block. While shuttling students are making their way back and forth, those not involved in the travel enjoy 14 minutes of “Spud time.”
“Through all of the last two years, our teachers are the heroes. They are the ones who have made it all work,” Haag stresses, pointing out that only one of the current high-school classes, the seniors, has ever gone through an ordinary, normal, pre-Covid year at school. “They have had to change gears and master entirely new teaching skills again and again. If we’d had time to plan this, it would have taken a year of study to take every course online. Yet we had two weeks back in 2020, and they did it – and did a superb job. Then they did it again last year, going from in-person to online teaching literally overnight.
“Every department, every teacher – they have made big adjustments faster than anyone would think possible. In 21 years in education, I can’t remember any time that has required this much adaptability so quickly,” he continues. “Yet I think they have become even better teachers now because of what they’ve learned to do. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit.”
Compared to those hurdles, adjusting to the Career Academy concept, while teaching as usual in their old building in the middle of a world-class construction site, may seem a welcome change. But a change it is – and one that will continue being tweaked and grown, only to be resumed when the new high school is complete for the 2023-2024 school year.
“Our teachers are stronger than ever, whether or not they realize it,” he emphasizes. “They love being back. So do our students. It’s a great time to be a Spud!”