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The dazzling new building for the Willard Alternative High School Program elicited some nostalgia from students for the old "homey" space — and enthusiasm for fresh materials and technology in the new edifice.

"It's pretty cool, really nice — super nice," said Spencer Poindexter, a senior, on his first day in the new building.

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Students in a creative writing class at Missoula's Willard Alternative High School Program work in a common area near a two-story bank of windows looking out at the North Hills. Tuesday was the first day of classes in the new $5.9 million building.

Tuesday afternoon, high school students leaving class reported having a tour of their new school earlier in the morning. The project was estimated to cost $5.9 million as part of Missoula County Public Schools' Smart Schools 2020 initiative, an effort funded by the $88 million elementary bond and $70 million high school bond.

Principal Kevin Ritchlin said the new space shows attention to detail, and the facility allows Willard's 150 students to learn and interact in ways that weren't possible in the old building. The new space offers nooks where students can work or socialize, along with specially designed educational spaces.

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Evie Howard uses a small study nook Tuesday to read a paper.

"We have a fully functioning science lab. We have a really nice culinary space. We have a large library. … We have a proper gym," Ritchlin said.

In the old building, students left school at lunchtime, but Tuesday, the principal said he watched students hang out, talk and play basketball — with two hoops.

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Tuesday, construction workers put muscle into the finishing touches at the 900 block of South Sixth Street West, but the bright open space already welcomed students and visitors alike with art panels in the entryway and natural light pouring through the windows.

Poindexter said the new space offers new technology, gadgets and cubbyholes, and he's pleased with the transformation.

"It keeps the same roomy feel. Just newer stuff," he said.

Ritchlin said the art panels in the new space hung in the old building and were created by Willard students. He said an unfamiliar facility can be disconcerting, so the artwork is meant to be a touchstone that students can relate to as they adapt. It also brings the pieces out of a dark corner to center stage.  

"Now you see them in the bright foyer," Ritchlin said.

Gavin Smith, a junior, wasn't quite as taken with the new building and missed the posters on the walls and the colorful decor at the old school. The district investigated renovation but found "insurmountable barriers and costs" to refurbish the old building, which is on the same site. 

"The old building was homey," Smith said. "The new building is just bland. Kind of depressing, honestly. It's just gray."

All the same, he figured he would get accustomed to the change. Jaden Trenk, a junior, also said he could offer "no good input" on the school, and as an example, he pointed to exposed vents. But he also said many people liked the facility, especially teachers, and he offered one positive observation.

"We got a new area to sit at for assemblies, which is going to be kind of cool," Trenk said.

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Ritchlin said the new building gives Missoula students one of the nicer buildings for alternative programs in the state, maybe the nicest, and he is grateful to the community. Without the support of voters at the ballot box, he said the new Willard facility would not be possible.

"People can be really proud of the school that has been constructed for the alternative program," Ritchlin said.

He said he knows students have an affinity for the old place, especially because some experienced success for the first time in high school in that brick building. But the important work and relationships that took place in the old building will continue to live in the new space too.

"It's the soul of the school that matters. It's what goes on inside the school," Ritchlin said.

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University of Montana, higher education