The first day of school was particularly poignant Tuesday for the 350 high school students of Minnehaha Academy.
They filed into the new Upper School in Mendota Heights, which will be their temporary home after a gas explosion Aug. 2 killed two employees and damaged their south Minneapolis campus beyond use.
Principal Jason Wenschlag cut a ribbon and students cheered as they rushed in to explore their new campus, the former Sanford-Brown College that closed in June.
Upon entry, they were greeted by a sign with the hashtag “Together We Rise,” a social media sign of solidarity that emerged after the explosion.
Parent Dawn Ostrem said the students’ excitement was moving. “Its kind of emotional that they are all hyped up about it,” Ostrem said.
Once inside, students peered into classrooms and checked their schedules.
“It’s crazy. It feels like a college campus more than a high school,” said Arne Christiansen, a 15-year-old sophomore at the private school.
Before school started Tuesday, seniors in the parking lot attempted to grill out but accidentally spilled lighter fluid on top of the hot dogs and hamburgers.
Teachers were relieved to welcome back their students after the gas explosion caused uncertainty about when students would head back to school.
For teachers such as Greg Ellis, the last two weeks leading up to the new school year were difficult. He was ready to start school as originally scheduled on Aug. 23, but the explosion changed that.
“It took tons of work by so many people to get to this point,” Ellis said.
Science teacher Carmella Whaley welcomed the 10 senior girls in her advisory group with gift bags and heartfelt cards on Tuesday. Whaley has served as the girls’ adviser since their freshman year.
She said students and staff members were ready to finally start the school year.
“It’s very energizing,” Whaley said. “We have had so much uncertainty.”
‘We are MA’
After students met with their advisory groups, they headed to their new “chapelteria,” or cafeteria and chapel, as Wenschlag named it Tuesday.
The assembly started off with music and a message from Wenschlag and Donna Harris, academy president.
“We have been praying for this,” Harris said to the students.
The assembly became more somber when Wenschlag addressed the gas explosion that killed the two employees and critically injured Bryan Duffey, the school’s assistant boys’ soccer coach.
Duffey sat in the audience in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace.
Wenschlag paused as he began to tear up when addressing Duffey.
“We are going to be here for you,” he said to Duffey, as students clapped and cheered.
Athletic director Josh Thurow chanted with students “We are MA,” in honor of the victims who died.
Wenschlag went on to thank everyone involved in helping the Upper School get back on its feet.
As the assembly came to a close, students and staff bowed their heads in prayer.
“We are just thrilled to be in this space,” Harris said.
The assembly ended with no bell for class. The new school has no bell system. Wenschlag proposed using a soft chime over the intercom system, but for now students will have to keep track of the time on their own.
Wenschlag asked his students to bear with him as staff members figure out the kinks of the school in the coming weeks.
Back to school all over
Like their counterparts at Minnehaha Academy, more than 865,000 students across Minnesota returned to school on Tuesday.
Students in Minneapolis started school last week.
In the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, interim Superintendent Cindy Amoroso greeted students at Hidden Valley Elementary School in Savage on Tuesday morning.
Amoroso stepped in after Joe Gothard was named superintendent of the St. Paul Public Schools.
Gothard spent his first school day in St. Paul visiting schools, including American Indian Magnet School, Creative Arts Secondary School and Highland Park High School.
In Carver County, students attending Carver Elementary School had new teachers and a new school.
The two-story, $33.21 million building accommodates 720 students and includes 30 classrooms, two full-sized gyms and an innovation center.
Principal June Johnson spoke to her students in the new school gym on Tuesday.
“For them to hear that the school was built for them ... you could see it on their faces about how excited they were and pleased,” she said.