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Willard Alternative High School has long embraced that second word as an asset, with students and staff emphasizing personal relationships and independent thinking to foster student goals.

But the school’s mission of “meeting students where they are, then taking them where they need to go” literally has not fit its building. The nearly century-old structure was built as an elementary school. Its traditional, kid-sized classrooms are not conducive to the collaborative, hands-on learning that has become the high school’s trademark.

On Monday, school officials, architects and students broke ground on “the new Willard.” From upper-floor windows, students in the “old Willard” will be able to see the construction of the $6 million school, slated to open next fall. The project was included in Missoula County Public School’s Smart School 2020 levy approved by voters in 2015. The $88 million elementary district bond and $70 million high school district bond were designed to renovate buildings with a focus on modernizing technology and school designs.

“The old Willard building has served us really well for a number of years,” Superintendent Mark Thane said, noting it was built before the Americans With Disabilities Act and has an inefficient heating system, among other challenges. When the district reviewed the city’s school facilities a few years ago, they found “literally millions of dollars of deferred maintenance at Willard.”

“The opportunity to design a facility that’s very specific for not only high school students but high school students in alternative programs is exciting,” he said. “It sends a message to the Willard community, and the students in particular, that we value alternative education and the district is willing to commit resources to make sure that we support students with different learning modalities.”

Faith Albitre, an 18-year-old member of the student senate set to graduate in November, participated in district meetings to design the new school, which she said will match Willard’s artsy character.

“A lot of buildings are plain and some regular high school, and Willard is gonna stand out from that,” she said. “The school deserves it. The teachers deserve it. I bet they’re tired of this 19th century building. It's 2017, man, we’ve got to upgrade, quite a bit honestly. The kids may feel a little dumbed down, too, being in an elementary building. They deserve a high school environment to make it more professional.”

The new school will include another 304 square feet and removable walls to expand some classrooms for collaborations. It will have high-speed fiber optics and wireless systems so students and teachers can use technology everywhere rather than compete for time in the one computer lab.

There will be updated entry points to make the school more secure, the schools’ first science-specific lab, a dedicated “makers space” where students can work on a variety of hands-on projects, a culinary arts classroom, and a modernized library.

Students in unstable housing situations will have improved facilities, including a shower and washer and dryer. And, for everyone, there will be an expanded common area with an oversize “grand stair” that will double as seating during three-times-a-year graduation ceremonies and other school events.

Plans focused on “just the feel of the school really matters,” Principal Kevin Ritchlin said — that is, bringing in natural light, bright colors and generally creating the right amount of room for about 150 teenagers used to adapting to a building not designed for them.

Social studies teacher Steve Mutchler agreed, saying he’s most excited by the sum of little things that will shape the daily atmosphere at the new school.

“The students feeling like, ‘I’m in a high school building now. The sinks aren’t at our knees. My teacher is not on his knees writing on his whiteboard,” he said.

Some colleagues had asked why Mutchler wasn’t leaving the school to become a principal after earning his master’s degree, as is typical. He told them, “I’m going to move into this new school building and I’m going to scuff it up. I’m going to break it in as a teacher. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a school for the 21st century.”

Maddie Braun, a 17-year-old set to graduate this winter, said it is exciting for teachers to be able to create classrooms to fit “what they need to make the learning possible” and to do so in a way that enhances, rather than erases, the school’s identity.

“This school is so different from every other school I’ve gone to. The vibes, the teachers and everybody. I don’t want that part to change,” Braun said, admitting she was skeptical to attend Willard, at first, because of the school’s rough-and-tumble reputation. “It’s a lot different than what it seems to be… A lot of high schools want you to act and be like everyone else. You can be who you want here and not be judged for it.”

There will be even more possibilities for students “to speak out and be who they are” in a school designed to fit them and their programs for the first time.

“It’s going to be really exciting for all the new students at Willard to have that experience,” Braun said.

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