A school of their own
There wasn't an empty seat in the house Wednesday evening, as community members, students and staff flooded into the new Wadena-Deer Creek Middle/High School gymnasium for the facility's long-awaited dedication ceremony.
After an EF4 tornado moved through Wadena on June 17, 2010 and destroyed much of the town's old secondary school, the new building's doors were finally opened. School leaders estimate approximately 2,500 people showed up to celebrate.
When Superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom stepped up to the podium toward the front of the gymnasium and threw her arm up in the air, the crowd exploded in applause.
"Thank you all for your support over the past two years," she said with a smile, as people listened from an area largely taken up by bleachers and folding chairs. The walking track that surrounds the sky-lit gymnasium was also packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder.
Dahlstrom went on to explain that while the school is 98 percent completed, she and other school leaders are thankful and impressed with the work that has been done to bring the school back to life.
School Board Chair Steve Techam also spoke to the crowd, and reminded everyone that the community "faced the challenge of adversity and won."
"May this awesome new facility be looked upon with pride by administrators, faculty, staff, students and all those who enter the doors," he said.
WDC senior Sayde Anderson also spoke, highlighting the progress that the community has made since disaster struck two years ago.
"Don't dwell on what went wrong. Instead, focus on what to do next," she said.
WDC Principal Tyler Church stood up after Anderson, granting credit to all those who made the new school possible. M State - Wadena, the WDC Elementary School, project architects Perkins + Will, construction professionals Kraus-Anderson, the WDC School Board, alumni students and staff were among those he recognized.
"For me, it's hard to imagine just over two years ago we were standing at this same spot trying to figure out what we were going to do with our school," Church said.
Additionally, Church thanked his wife and kids for their support.
"I know I haven't spent nearly enough time with you in the last two years," he said to his family through tears, "but thank you for being there for me. I love you very much."
Following the ceremony, some stayed in the gymnasium to chat, while others lined the doors to tour the school, with student council members and faculty as their guides.
As he watched people eagerly move toward the school's main entrance to get a look at what amenities the facility has to offer, James Howarth, one of the main Perkins + Will architects behind the new school, expressed his excitement for Wadena.
"It's really fun to see people enjoying the building and hearing the wonderful words from the principal, the school board, the superintendent. It's really been exciting, he said.
Howarth added that Perkins + Will isn't going anywhere for the time being. He said the group is sticking around for another year to help finish the building and make sure operations run smoothly.
Among the projects that need to be completed is the school's storm shelter, which Howarth said will also be used as an additional gym, as well as small equipment installations in classrooms.
Standing a few feet away from Howarth, Sen. Paul Gazelka spoke with attendees in the gymnasium. He is confident the school will benefit Wadena and its students.
"The students have buy-in. This is their school," Gazelka said. "When you have buy-in, when you have ownership in it, you tend to perform at a higher level, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if we have high-performing students this year in Wadena."
As people left the gymnasium to tour the rest of the school, they were able to snag a snack from the kitchen, near the gym's entrance. Long lines extended into the cafeteria as people waited to grab yellow- and blue-colored cookies.
From the cafeteria, many people made their way to the second floor, where teachers and students were testing out the school's state-of-the-arts features and equipment.
Near the top of the stairs, Brenda Thelen, a 9-12 grade Spanish teacher, showed people around her room. Thelen is excited to have a corner room that has extra windows.
"This is fabulous," Thelen said as she pulled down different layers of blinds that control the room's lighting. She also gushed over the storage space she had to work with.
Thelen is excited to start the new school year, after spending the last two years in a windowless room in the M State - Wadena building.
"I am so thankful for the space, but it was time for both of us to grow apart," she chuckled.
Outside Thelen's classroom, senior Addison Crocker tracked down her new locker. She said she liked the space for her school supplies.
Between rooms and lockers on the second floor are common areas where students can study, relax or socialize between classes. Many students were already taking advantage of the comfy chairs and high tables Wednesday.
Maizie Miller and Lydia Burns were sitting at a table as other patrons roamed to and fro. The two 9th graders are happy with their new setting.
"It's amazing. I like it a lot," Burns said.
Another big hit for those touring the school were the iPads in the Media Center on the second floor. Students and parents alike were testing out the new devices, which will replace many books.
Other major features in the building include conference rooms along hallways as well as an auditorium and tech room on the first floor.
The new school was well-received by many in the community, and people are excited for a sense of normalcy to return to Wadena. A ribbon-cutting will be held 8:15 a.m. at the school Tuesday, with students cutting the ribbon and VFW members holding a flag raising.
The 2010 tornado may have taken a school, but not the community's sense of camaraderie and spirit. The Wolverines are back and ready for a new year.