This month marked the first time in more than a decade that students walked the hallways of a downtown Anoka school building with more than 120 years of history.

The pressed brick building on Second Street is the new home of Sandburg Regional High School, a newly named alternative program (formerly Anoka-Hennepin Regional High School) that serves high schoolers from across the largest district in the state. Before this school year, the program was housed in a leased — and cramped — space in Coon Rapids.

"The old building was just crumbling around us," said Principal Heather Forse. "Now they are in this gorgeous, historic building that feels like a real school."

The building was constructed in 1904 as a new site for Anoka High School. Fifty years later, it became Anoka Junior High School and then, in 1976, Sandburg Middle School. That middle school site closed in 2010 and the building became the Sandburg Educational Center, which the district used for school board meetings, early childhood screenings and professional development.

When Forse first toured the building, she said she fell in love with the character of the hardwood floors and large, light-filled classrooms.

So did the students and their families, she said. This year's open house drew about 60 families, many more than the 10 to 15 who trickled in for previous years' back-to-school events at the old building. Many of the parents had their own memories of the building — recalling their own middle-school experiences there, Forse said.

Forse's goal this year: preserve the history of the space while cultivating a sense of ownership and pride among the students. That's a whole lot easier to do now that the school has a gym (the old building didn't have one at all) and a cafeteria that can fit all the students for assemblies and events.

"You could actually feel the excitement and sense of togetherness," said Stephanie Johnston, a student achievement adviser, about the first all-school assembly this year. "There's pride for them in being here."

Seventeen-year-old Marquez Holloway agreed. "I ain't going to lie — I didn't like the old school," he said. "But it really feels like the energy has changed for the better here."

The full gym is a game-changer, said Deon Gray, another 17-year-old student. It's a place to get some energy so he can focus during his classes.

"We can bring more to the table when it comes to learning because we're not all on top of each other and we have the space we need," Gray said.

Forse hopes the larger space will allow the program to grow — both to serve more students and offer extracurriculars like music or technical education courses.

Emma Kramer, who will turn 18 on Tuesday, has been attending the program for most of her high school years.

"This feels like a real high school," Kramer said. "I feel like we're not so separated from that normal high school experience now."