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Paula Quam, Forum Communications, Published September 08 2012

$16M school opens in White Earth, Minn.

WHITE EARTH, Minn. – There was a hustle and bustle of students in the marble hallways, a smell of food drifting from a shiny new kitchen and impressed smiles everywhere as White Earth community members opened the doors to their new $16 million school.

“An ‘academy’ is a little bit above a school,” said former school administrator Mitchell Vogt at the grand opening of the Circle of Life Academy in a ceremony last week, “and now that we have this, I ask you, what are we going to do with it? What’s this school going to look like 10 years from now from an academic standpoint? We have some of the finest, most talented teachers in the area, but they have a name to live up to now.”

Spiritual leader Mike Swan blessed the school with a pipe ceremony, marking a moment in time that was by all accounts long-awaited and joyous.

“The anticipation up until today has been mounting and mounting within me,” Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said. “But whenever we celebrate something great, there’s always a beginning.”

The beginning takes them back to November 1977, when a dozen native students walked out of the Waubun School in protest after experiencing ongoing racism.

The students and a few community members essentially formed their own school in a vacant house. With a grant the following year, a staff was hired and a facility was leased – the facility that would be the school for decades. The Circle of Life grew over the years, but funding always remained an issue.

There was an addition made to the 1939 facility, but over the years, it deteriorated. The old building had mold, floor issues, unconnected portable classrooms and only four real classrooms to accommodate grades 7-12, and it had no air conditioning.

Special education teacher Dawn Heisler has been teaching at White Earth since 1986, so walking the halls of the state-of-the-art facility is a bit of a dream come true for her.

“Just looking around at all the technology,” she said, “that’s what I’m really excited for because these kids did not have that in the old school. The wiring wasn’t right, and there was so little space.”

The school is equipped with enough iPads for each student, new classroom computers, a computer lab and smart boards.

Circle of Life is open to students K-12 who live on the White Earth Indian Reservation and are at least a quarter native or enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. The new building is located on Mission Lake outside of White Earth.

“I think this is a really great, new beginning for them,” said Kimberly St. Clair, whose son, Lawrence, is starting the fifth grade at White Earth. “I wouldn’t send him to the old school; I sent him to Ogema instead, but this impresses me. The kids deserve it, and so do the teachers.”

If enrollment does continue to increase, school administrator Kevin Hedstrom says the school may even look at putting together a football team, as the property includes a playing field, seating and concession stands.

“Obviously that’s not going to be this year, because football has already started, but it’s a possibility going forward,” Hedstrom said.

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