RED LAKE -- Whenever they are allowed to safely return, Red Lake's youngest students will be greeted with a shiny, recently remodeled school building.

Over the past year, the Red Lake Elementary School and the Early Childhood Center received a much-needed face lift, including a new roof, new entryway, expanded cafeteria and increased safety features. The building should be ready to welcome students whenever they transition back to in-person learning.

The project was a long time coming, the school was crowded and safety features becoming outdated, Red Lake School Board Chairman Chris Jourdain explained.

“It’s shaping up,” Jourdain said as he walked through the construction site, admiring the developing space.

In total, the project has been underway for more than a year. Construction began with a groundbreaking on June 19, 2019 and the project is expected to wrap up around October. Long before the project’s beginning, the search for funding was an arduous road.

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Currently, Red Lake students are distance learning -- school began Sept. 8 -- which will continue through the first quarter, meaning the building should be completed and ready to welcome them back, whenever that may be.

The project added about 20,450 square feet of space between the Red Lake Elementary and Early Childhood Center buildings, connecting them.

The project will also renovate 41,420 square feet in the elementary school with improvements to classrooms and the cafeteria as well as increasing security.

Growing group

Red Lake Elementary already has the largest population of any school in the district, and judging by birth rates, it will only grow larger in coming years.

The school has been packed to the brim over the past few years.

“The Red Lake Elementary School is at or above maximum capacity in all program areas. Special purpose classrooms designed for art, science and music instruction are now being used as general education classrooms,” according to a June 27, 2019 story in the Red Lake Nation News. “Students are receiving math and reading small group instruction in spaces intended to be used as storage spaces.”

Additional sections of first grade and second grade were added in both 2014 and 2015.

“It’s a good problem to have I guess,” Jourdain said. “Even though we’re at maximum capacity here and know more kids are coming.”

Red Lake Public Schools Board Chairman Chris Jourdain tours the new entrance to the elementary school. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Red Lake Public Schools Board Chairman Chris Jourdain tours the new entrance to the elementary school. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Unique funding

What is now a reality for many years seemed like a distant dream. Red Lake District officials worked tirelessly to secure funding for the design and construction of the new structure between the Red Lake Early Childhood Center and the Red Lake Elementary School.

Unlike other area schools that need to ask taxpayers for a levy increase, schools on Native American reservations, much like schools on military bases, must seek funding through bonding bills.

This funding took a while to secure. Since bonding bills often have many components tied to partisan arguments, they can be hard to pass.

“Hey man, we’re still up here with real needs,” Jourdain said of the politics of the situation. “You guys are up here playing political games and we have to go back home and make real decisions based on what you give us.”

Jourdain said once state representatives visited the school and saw how overcrowded the cafeteria became during lunch, the funding was secured.

“It wasn’t good but I’m glad these guys got to see it and see there was a real need,” he said.

Safety measures

Many of the new features on the building are for safety reasons.

A large new entryway to the building has a waiting area for visitors and a security desk.

Mirrored windows hide classrooms from outside view. New lights and pavement add safety to the parking lot, and new bus lanes will streamline the drop-off process. Outside facing doors have no handles.

Chairman Jourdain walks along the school bus drop-off lane, a newly installed safety measure. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Chairman Jourdain walks along the school bus drop-off lane, a newly installed safety measure. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Red Lake Public Schools are among the safest, Jourdain said.

Many new features are also preventative measures for COVID-19. While students won’t be back for a little while, they are ready with floor stickers directing socially distant traffic flow and sanitizer stations already in place.

A larger cafeteria also means no more snaking lines and crowding of students.

New building, new focus

With the growing group of youngsters comes renewed focus to instill a desire to learn more about the Ojibwe culture, language and heritage.

This is present throughout the new building -- the seven grandfather teachings stand at the new entrance and bilingual signs line the walls.

“We’re 99% Red Lakers in our district,” Jourdain explained. “Language and culture can be a priority for us.”

Jourdain said the Red Lake School District has the unique ability to focus on Ojibwe language culture and value in class, more so than Kelliher or Bemidji districts can.

Bilingual signs in Ojibwe and English are affixed throughout the school complex. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bilingual signs in Ojibwe and English are affixed throughout the school complex. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Previously, students only attended Ojibwe class once a week and mostly studied nouns, but now, within this renewed effort, the language and culture education will be more intertwined, Jourdain explained. For example, learning the words and meaning of gathering wild rice during wild ricing season.

“There’s a push with the culture, which is something I’m really excited about,” he said. “It’s good in the overall picture for Red Lake Nation itself, we have a lot of youngsters coming up.”