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New high school opens at Lapwai

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LAPWAI, Idaho - A new high school greeted students this fall at Lapwai on the Nez Perce Reservation. It's not as complete as originally hoped, but it constitutes phase I of a rebuilding program that became even more of a necessity when portions of the old school were condemned.

The newly opened school will house grades nine through 12, plus two classrooms of sixth-graders. The middle school wing will eventually contain grades six through eight. Finishing that section is part of phase II.

The original plan was to build a school to include grades six through 12, and the district had saved up about $1.6 million in a construction fund toward that goal. A bond introduced in 2004 and passed by voters in the amount of $3.9 million was estimated to be sufficient to construct the school. The bid went out early in 2005, but during that period construction costs had increased dramatically and bids came in far in excess of the money available. A later bid went out, hoping that the construction industry had leveled out, but bids were still too high.

A decision was made to proceed with a third bid, but the project had to be reduced in scope. Changing from a block building to a frame building reduced the cost by about half a million, and the entire middle school wing was removed from the project and moved to a phase II plan for later completion. Even with the reduction in scope, the lowest bid was still half a million dollars over budget.

At that point, the school board approached the tribe for assistance. The Nez Perce Tribe agreed to provide $500,000 over a five-year period to make up the deficit, and that's where the project now stands.

The good news is that the high school students are now housed in a new building away from the old portion of the previous school. The seventh- and eighth-grade classes have the old school to themselves, but are in the newer portion. The sixth-grade classes are in two classrooms of the unfinished wing of the new building that will eventually contain all the mid-high students. Moving the sixth-graders from the elementary school has eased an overcrowding problem at that level.

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Plans now call for seeking another bond next spring to enable completion of the mid-high. Following that, the old building in front of the school will be torn down to increase parking for students and staff and to improve access for the community. Future money availability will determine the final two phases. One calls for the construction of a gymnasium; the other, construction of a performing arts center. Both to be part of the new school.

A new gymnasium would replace an existing gym that can no longer be insured. Indoor space for intramural activities and team sports is badly needed. The only gymnasium currently available is in the elementary school.

Bryan Samuels, a Nez Perce tribal member, has worked 28 years in the Lapwai school district - the past 18 years as high school principal. He talked of some of the major improvements in the new school. ''We now have a really nice cafeteria. The building is designed to have natural light. There's natural lighting in the cafeteria, with high ceilings, high beams and good air quality. Compared to last year, it's remarkable.

''The old building had four small classrooms and that posed problems for teachers. Now every classroom is basically the same size and equipped to house 25 - 35 students. You'd not want that teacher/student ratio, but it's at least equipped for that. We also have central air conditioning and great air environment for our students. This building is all on one level and has a bigger library with natural light, so it is a nice comfortable zone. We also have a counseling center with space for students to access information off computers and a few offices for counselors and interns or people visiting who need an office for a day.

''There is great visibility,'' Samuels continued. ''We think we've created a building which is easier to maintain, easier to manage and creates a safe environment. We now have a facility which is phenomenal to me.

''It's one of those things that will improve education for the kids. Eighty-four percent are Native, but it's a public facility for all kids.''

''I'm really thankful to the Nez Perce Tribe and the community people who voted for the building and for the kids,'' Samuels said. ''I'm very fortunate in my career to be here.''