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Schoolcraft moves into new home: Charter school leasing former Deer Lake Elementary

Mark Morrissey, Schoolcraft Learning Community board chair, and Adrienne Eickman, school director, give a tour of the new facility the school built at the former Deer Lake Elementary site. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 2
Schoolcraft Learning Community recently moved into the former site of Deer Lake Elementary. The school constructed a new facility and also will continue to use the old school building that already existed at the site. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

BEMIDJI— About 17 miles north of Bemidji, an outdoorsy charter school is ready to head to its new home.

Schoolcraft Learning Community leaders will get the keys to what used to be Deer Lake Elementary on Friday. Staff will start moving in after that, and the 200 or so students at the K-8 charter school will start classes Sept. 4.

The former Bemidji Area Schools elementary will house students in kindergarten through fifth grade, plus physical education classes and lunch periods. Next to it sits a newly constructed building for grades 6-8 and schoolwide art and music classes. Next to that, a wooded path leads to two "forest" classrooms.

"Eventually, there'll be more like seven, but we're just starting with those two at the beginning of this year," Schoolcraft Director Adrienne Eickman said. Staff mapped out spots along the path that might pique students' interest, like a grove of maple trees and a massive red pine.

Beyond the industrial-looking building for older grades and the removal of a tree that exposes a bell-less belltower at the front of the elementary, the most noticeable changes to the property are inside what used to be Deer Lake: an $80,000 renovation to its kitchen, green paint in place of orange, and, perhaps most strikingly: walls.

The school was built near the end of the "open concept" trend in school construction, which favored wide open areas over small classrooms. This summer, workers partitioned the building's cavernous interior into classrooms, plus a flexible common area for celebrations, performances and more.

The former principal's office has a bay window that juts into the building's hangar-like center. Schoolcraft staff jokingly call it "The Spaceship," and they plan to use it for special education, plus a nurse's station and IT office. (Eickman's office will be a small room next to the entrance.)

Outside, a single basketball hoop is planted in an asphalt rectangle with a few four-square courts. Next to it: a large field fenced by trees. The entire property is about 20 acres large.

"The second and third grade last year studied the benefits of play, and did a schoolwide survey to see what kind of playground equipment the kids wanted. And what they found out was that the kids prefer this," Eickman said, gesturing to the expanse of green. "They prefer just free play in the outside."

Bemidji Area Schools constructed the Deer Lake building in 1981, and mothballed it in 2001 in the face of declining enrollment and budget cuts. The school district sold the building and grounds in 2016 to a former BSU professor who planned to open an engineering school there. The professor, Dave Bahr, scrapped that plan when the federal government stopped recognizing the organization that would have accredited his hoped-for school. He then briefly operated a small research and development firm at the site.

Another charter school, TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School, eyed the Deer Lake site for a planned expansion into elementary grades, but backed off amid concerns about the bond they planned to issue for the project and the site's distance from their existing building for grades 6-12 in Bemidji.

A company aimed to buy the site from Bahr and lease it to Schoolcraft, but that deal fell through hours before the charter's board was set to vote on it.

Ultimately, Bahr formed a company called Deer Lake Properties, and Schoolcraft's board voted to lease the school property from that company in February. Workers have been renovating the building and grounds since May.

Before it moved to Deer Lake, Schoolcraft had leased space from Concordia Language Villages. But that arrangement forced school staff to pack up and move their offices and classrooms each spring to make room for the villages' summer camps; then set it all back up every fall. Their new digs at Deer Lake are permanent, and more spacious.

"It's the same flavor, the same feeling," said Mark Morrissey, who chairs Schoolcraft's board. "Just with some more room to grow and breathe, here."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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