Students in Wadena, Minn., were back in school today for the first time since a tornado destroyed the town's high school back in June.
About 340 high school students are now splitting their time between an elementary school and classroom space offered by the local community and technical college.
The students kicked off their school year with a pancake breakfast in the elementary school gym. Senior Alana Roggenkamp says she'd much rather be in her old school, but she knows that's impossible. The June 17 tornado caused millions in damage and left behind a big mess.
Roggenkamp is on the student council. She helped put together a slideshow of the damage that was shown to students Tuesday morning.
"Actually seeing it, it did make me kind of sad," she said. "It was still just depressing, knowing that I could never go back there, and it's so bad in there. It's really upsetting to me."
The tornado ripped part of the roof off the school, so there was a lot of wind and water damage inside.
Roggenkamp says the biggest challenge for her this school year will be walking back and forth for classes between two unfamiliar buildings. The high school students will be sharing space with older college students at the community and tech college just across the street. After closing some programs, there was empty space in the building.
"Knowing where everything is, kind of the feeling of confusion, trying to help other people, that will be a challenge," she said. "But it should be OK. I don't think it will be that much of a problem."
Getting ready for this unusual school year has been a challenge for teachers, too. They were able to get into their new classrooms for the first time just this past Friday.
The tornado destroyed thousands of books and other teaching materials. Science teacher Craig Klawitter lost textbooks, and a career's worth of classroom teaching aids.
"I've been here 32 years and now I'm a first-year teacher again. It's kind of fun, sort of," he said with a laugh.
Klawitter says he's fortunate that new textbooks arrived in time for the first day of class. But other than that, he'll be teaching students in an empty room, at least for awhile.
"I teach chemistry and physics, and I have nothing. I don't have a beaker or a test tube or a balance," he said. "We're missing a few things."
Klawitter and other teachers typically spend only a few days of prep time before a school year starts. This year they've spend most of the summer helping to salvage what they could from the old school and prepare for teaching in new spaces.
High school principal Tyler Church says the summer has been chaotic, but teachers and community members pulled together to open the schools on time.
"When we looked at this a couple months ago we didn't know if we'd be ready. But we really do feel like we can start school today," said Church. "The kids -- you can hear them, they're excited to be back with their friends, socializing. They're getting used to things."
By the school district's estimates, damage at the old high school exceeds $30 million. Superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom says negotiations with the district's insurance carrier could wrap up as early as this week.
That's been the holdup for making any decisions about whether to tear down the old high school or build a new one. Dahlstrom says she and many others in the community would prefer to start over with a new building.
"When you look at that structure the way it's sitting there right now and how awful it is, we would like a brand new structure, a new creation, something that's going to be a wow factor for our community," she said. "That can't happen until we do have a settlement with the insurance."
The district has hired Krause-Anderson as the general contractor for either a rebuild or construction of a new school. That work will begin in spring 2011 and be completed in time for the 2012 school year. District officials say they'll begin gathering community input on the plan in a few weeks.