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The Circle of Life Academy brings pride to White Earth

School is now open, as students and faculty take in the state of the art facility that includes marble floors, wooden beams and stonework throughout the building. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 7
Each grade will also now have its own classroom, which was not the case in the old school. Technology is also infused throughout the school, including iPads, smartboards and new classroom computers. Photo by - Brian Basham2 / 7
Chairwoman Erma Vizenor. Photo by - Brian Basham3 / 7
Professor John Gonzales Photo by - Brian Basham4 / 7
Former School Administrator Mitchell Vogt. Photo by - Brian Basham5 / 7
The Circle of Life Academy is right next to Mission Lake outside of White Earth. The $16 million facility took over two years to build, with work done mostly by reservation contractors. Photo by - Brian Basham6 / 7
The Circle of Life Academy logo is part of the brick for the walkway. Photo by - Brian Basham7 / 7

There's a hustle and bustle of students in the beautiful, marble hallways; there's a smell of food drifting from the shiny, new kitchen, and there are impressed smiles everywhere you look, as White Earth community members finally open the doors to the new Circle of Life Academy.

"An 'academy' is a little bit above a school," said former School Administrator Mitchell Vogt at the school's grand opening Thursday, "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. You have a challenge to live up to -- you have to make this school shine in every sense of the word. You have to teach kids to learn and teach them the love of learning."

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

"The anticipation up until today has been mounting and mounting within me," said Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor, who expressed excitement of seeing a little kid riding his bike to the school with his backpack on.

"But whenever we celebrate something great, there's always a beginning," said Vizenor.

The beginning takes them back to November of 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 ... the Circle of Life School, located in White Earth.

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, the building has deteriorated to very substandard levels.

The old building has no air conditioning, mold, floor issues, unconnected portable classrooms and only four real classrooms to accommodate grades 7-12.

This makes the new Circle of Life Academy even more welcomed in a community that has endured too many years of a broken down building.

Special Education Teacher Dawn Heisler has been teaching at White Earth since 1986, so walking the halls of the new, state of the art facility is certainly 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."

Now, the school is equipped with enough iPads for each student to use one, new classroom computers, a computer lab and smart boards.

The $16 million dollar facility, which 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, is "The Home of the Warriors."

The new school is located right on Mission Lake outside of White Earth and is designed with native flare, including earthy colors and a lot of brick, granite and colorful masonry.

"I think this is a really great, new beginning for them," said Kimberly St.Clair, whose son, Lawrence, is starting his fifth grade year in White Earth for the first time. "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."

Lawrence, who is most excited for the gym's climbing wall, is only one of 30 new students at the school this year, as enrollment numbers are up to roughly 150 in a school equipped to hold 350.

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 both 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," said Hedstrom, who also came over as administrator from the old school.

"Just to be in a safe and secure building with state of the art technology, it increases morale for both students and teachers because there just so much more opportunity for learning," said Hedstrom, adding that visitors now have to be buzzed into the wings of the schools and cameras now surround the facility.

Geothermal heating and cooling enhance efficiency, which was also an issue for the old, leaky building.

"Everybody is just so happy to be here," said Hedstrom, who says the halls are buzzing with activity and excitement, "I think it's going to be a really good first year."