Orient District Gets Creative During School Renovation

ORIENT, Wash. - Imagine fitting 40 students into a small converted home for schooling, then sending them to the old town bar for lunch. That's exactly what is happening in Orient, Washington, where the school district is having to get creative in the midst of a big renovation.

Orient is about four blocks wide and four blocks long. If you blink during your drive north on Highway 395 you'll likely miss it. Folks who live there were born there. It has one school in the northwest corner of town, where kindergarten through 8th grade is taught.

?Well this is an old building that needed to have some help, as you can see on the outside edge the brick and mortar are crumbling,? Principal Tara Holmes said.

The brick schoolhouse is 101 years old. Today, it lacks sufficient outlets that are needed as more technology is introduced into traditional education, and sometimes the toilets don't flush.

Holmes says her district has applied for a state grant to renovate the old schoolhouse for a few years now. In July, they got word that the state is giving them $5 million dollars.

?This year, our mission is to look for the bright spot, what is it that's happening that you might have thought was a challenge, but is actually going to be an opportunity,? Holmes said.

The Challenge

There are about 40 students who depend on that old, crumbling schoolhouse for their formal education. So what do you do when that school is closed for renovation? In Orient, you can't just move them to the Junior High or High School gym ? there is no other school.

So Holmes took a house, donated to the school district by a born-and-raised Orient couple that passed away, and converted it into a school.

?In the basement we have the 5th through 8th grade students and on the ground floor we have the kindergarten through 4th grade students,? Holmes said.

The alternative option was to bus the students to Kettle Falls or Colville, which is an hour and a half drive each way. High School students have been doing that for years, but the school district wanted to avoid that fate with the younger kids.

They only had a few weeks to turn the donated home into an acceptable place for students to learn. With the help of volunteers from the community they pulled it off in time for the first day of school on August 31st.

The space is tight, but the students don't seem to notice. What they do notice is being able to look out the front window as their old school is transformed.

?I'm just looking forward to having enough plug ins and being able to flush,? Holmes said with a chuckle. ?I mean honestly, sometimes it was difficult to have all the things working properly.?

The Tavern

As the dust settled at the new house-turned-classroom a new challenge arose. It was announced that the students would be bussed across the busy Highway 395 for lunch at their new cafeteria ? the old Orient Inn Tavern.

?The transition was pretty hard because we didn't know until last minute where we were going to be, we were trying a church and different places,? school cook Diana Behrens said.

The church and all other options for a make-shift cafeteria fell through and the Orient Inn became their only option. It has a kitchen for Behrens, who has been a school cook for 30 years, seven of which has been in Orient, and adequate space for the students to eat.

?In the other kitchen I would flip breakers all the time because the wiring was so bad,? Behrens said.

She also said the floor at the old schoolhouse where her sink stood was dirt and the food storage was down in a basement, which made hauling the food back and forth a task.

Behrens says a couple parents aren't happy with the new cafeteria location, but she would invite them to the newly named ?Bobcat Cafe? to see what they've made of the space.

?In the long run, even though it's not fun and not easy, we're in a tavern and some people think that's very bad,? Behrens said. ?In the long run the children will be better because they're kept together and kept fed.?

Besides, she says, the Orient Inn hasn't been a working bar in a year and a half. There are still beer taps in the wall but there's no beer in the building. Behrens says the kids enjoy the unconventional atmosphere.

?They aren't unhappy, they get in there, they're giggling, they're laughing, the older kids think it's really fun because they have their special tables and chairs,? Behrens said.

After lunch, which is usually chicken or fish nuggets and Behrens' homemade rolls, the students, smiling and unaware of their unique situation, are bussed back across Highway 395 to their temporary school.

The Opportunity

Five-million dollars sounds like a lot of money to renovate a school that only fits about 40 students, but Holmes says it's barely enough.

Workers have to gut the inside of the building and start from scratch. Then, make improvements to the old brick and mortar that's crumbling on the exterior.

Holmes knows there's criticism out there regarding their unconventional classrooms and cafeteria, but she says they're making due with what Orient has to offer.

?I think we picked the best option, it's close, the kids are going to be able to see their school remodeled out their windows, so I think it's going to be a bright spot in the community,? Holmes said.

Renovations are supposed to be wrapped up by the end of this school year, so they can start fresh in 2012. Holmes acknowledges it's going to be a long haul to make it through the transition. It's not pretty, but Holmes is trying to make it a teaching moment for her students.

?One of the things I told the students from the get go on the first day when we were all over in the Bobcat Cafe, I said you know there's going to be some challenges this year, but you all know that when you have challenges that there are actually going to be opportunities,? Holmes said.