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New school being built in White Earth

Circle of Life Academy will open its doors this fall. The K-12 school is being built on the edge of White Earth, overlooking Mission Lake.

Students from the White Earth Indian Reservation will be getting quite a welcome back to school next year, as construction plows full steam ahead on the new Circle of Life Academy.

The K-12 school is being built on the outskirts of White Earth where an old Catholic Mission school stood for nearly a century.

Not long after its demolition 15 years ago, Reservation leaders began planning for the day a new school would be built on that site, which overlooks Mission Lake.

Two years ago that dream became more of a reality when the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federally run entity, approved funding for a new school.

Project Manager Roy LaVoy says the building itself has a $13.5 million price tag, with an additional two and a half million going towards furnishings and installing a geothermal well field right next to it.

"It will use ground temperature to heat it in the winter and cool it in the summer," LaVoy said, "Because it is a federal project, everything has to be very green."

This includes purchasing materials within a 500-mile radius of the school and getting lumber from mills that plant two trees for every one they chop down, an act that stays true to a native philosophy of treating the earth well.

LaVoy says the U of M is also interested in putting up a wind turbine on the property as well to provide energy to the school.

The building is being constructed in what LaVoy calls "about as high quality as you can possibly get."

The corridor floors, which are not yet in, will be granite, with vaulted beamed ceilings and burnished block (which looks like natural stone) throughout the school.

The facility is housing 13 classrooms (one for each grade), a gymnasium that will be painted the school colors of gold and black, a science lab, music room, kitchen, cafeteria, administrative offices, media center, library, home economics room, locker rooms and more.

There will be a cultural park with native plants and stone walkways, as well as two small playgrounds separated by a basketball court.

The masonry work is done with earthy native charm, while tectum panels decorate spaces throughout the school.

LaVoy says another big bonus for students is a large industrial technologies area.

"Everything really is state of the art, and pretty much no maintenance with all the brick, granite, and metal roofs," LaVoy pointed out, "This thing will last us many, many lifetimes."

Right now there are roughly 40 different contractors working daily on the school, with current efforts going to finishing up brick veneers on the outside and electrical, plumbing and paining on the inside.

All contractors are hired locally from the reservation.

"It's a big boost to the economy here -- millions of dollars in labor," said LaVoy.

And quite the labor it has been, as undesirable soils and challenging topography have delayed construction by roughly a month.

"We had to move about 65,000 yards of dirt from one side of the site to the other; that's a big cost," said LaVoy.

But educators expect it to be worth every penny, as they say the current Circle of Life school, located in the town of White Earth, is old, run-down and far too small.

"Right now we have about 125 students, but we are building the new school to hold 350 because we expect enrollment to possibly double," said Circle of Life School Principal Mitch Vogt.

Vogt says because of space constraints, they haven't been able to offer anything other than core classes, and they've been without sports, music and industrial classes.

Water problems and portable classrooms have also been a challenge, as faculty and students had to go outside to access the main building.

They've also never had a music room or commons area.

Vogt says the current building gave students so many reasons to choose neighboring schools.

"So now with the new school there will be a standard-sized gym where we can have sports programs, and we think all those things will really start to draw especially high school students back here," said Vogt.

Vogt says the new facility will also have high security, making the school an ultra safe environment for students.

"Nobody will be able to access the building through any of the wings -- they'll have to go through the front and through a security check in order to get clearance to enter the building. Nobody gets in unannounced," said Vogt.

Circle of Life teachers toured the new facility last week, while students will get a sneak peek once school is out.

According to LaVoy and Vogt, students and teachers are extremely excited to make the move, which should happen Oct. 1.

"We wanted to get them in here for the start of school, but the delay put us back about a month," LaVoy explains, "but if the weather is really nice this summer, you never know, maybe we can get them in earlier ... I hope so because everybody is going to be really proud of this."