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'Blessed are the flexible...'

HATTON, N.D. After a 13-mile sunrise bus ride, Jan Hallenger's third-graders join other Northwood, N.D., students for breakfast and a singalong in the basement of St. John Lutheran Church in Hatton.

HATTON, N.D. After a 13-mile sunrise bus ride, Jan Hallenger's third-graders join other Northwood, N.D., students for breakfast and a singalong in the basement of St. John Lutheran Church in Hatton.

Then, it's down to business in the Bethlehem Room, one of several Sunday School classrooms converted to more secular pursuits: nouns, numbers, vocabulary words, life cycles of butterflies and elephants.

"The first day we walked down here, the kids looked at me and said, 'If there's another tornado, we'll be safe down here,'" Hallenger said.

They still feel safe, she said, and they're learning, settling into familiar routines, surrounded by familiar faces and new friends.

"What's the best thing about going to school in Hatton?" a visitor asked, and Austin Olheiser, 9, answered for his mates: "People who care about us," he said.


In the basement of St. John, where Northwood's grades one through three set up hurdles in the basement hallways for phy-ed, and on the reconditioned third floor of Hatton High School, where Northwood's seniors will finish high school, 241 students displaced by the Aug. 26 tornado have found new homes and 223 new schoolmates.

It helped that Hallenger lives in Hatton and that her husband, Chris, is pastor at St. John, an example of the many personal ties that bind these sometime rivals.

"The Hatton school community has been more than receptive," said Northwood Superintendent Kevin Coles, who works out of a modular office on the Hatton school grounds.

New school in 2009?

Coles took over the top schools job in Northwood on Aug. 7, less than three weeks before the tornado left him without an office or a school.

"Obviously, the situation is less than ideal," he said. "But it's turned into a great opportunity."

He often recites an old administrative beatitude: "Blessed are the flexible, for they do not get bent out of shape."

Northwood officials want a new school ready for students in August 2009. They continue to negotiate with insurance adjusters, who have offered the district $6.4 million to repair the old school. Coles said he believes it is beyond repair.


A formal consolidation of the two districts is unlikely; Northwood voters approved a merger plan earlier this year, but Hatton voters rejected it.

"We want to continue cooperating with Northwood," Hatton Superintendent Kevin Rogers said. "But reorganization probably is on the back burner for a while."

Temporary quarters could be developed in Northwood for the 2008-2009 school year, Coles said, "but there's probably not a solid reason for us to uproot ourselves again and move. So, we're probably here (in Hatton) for the next two years."

Rogers said he believes the temporary partnership has succeeded better than anyone expected.

"I thought we were sticking our neck out when we made the offer," he said. "But, I couldn't be happier with the way it has worked out."

It helped, he said, that the schools have had cooperative arrangements in athletics, counseling and other activities for years.

"You see the increased traffic in the morning and after school and at noon," Rogers said. "But the only real interruption was the initial setup. Once that was done, the day-to-day routines settled in pretty well. Once classes start, you hardly know the Northwood kids are here."

People could stretch a little when a half dozen modular classrooms and offices were brought onto school grounds, several virtually donated by the Grand Forks School District.


"People all over the state have been so good to us," Coles said. "In our first weeks here, the best part of the day was when we opened up all the cards."

Also, students, teachers and other staff members are enjoying "a silver lining" that came with crowding, the superintendents said: They're learning from each other.

"Cooks in the kitchen are seeing how each other does things and learning how to feed 550 people in an hour and a half," Rogers said. A science teacher has a colleague nearby, "where before they might have been a department of one," and one school's math teacher, a substitute, gets to work alongside the other school's veteran, a former North Dakota teacher of the year.

"We're living in their house," Coles said. "We go through periods when it wears on us a little, but then we think of what the alternatives were, and we smile again."

Air keyboarding

In the Northwood fourth-grade classroom, Bailey Hermanson said he likes coming to school in Hatton "because they have a big playground," and Bailey Erickson yes, there are two Baileys, said the food is better.

Cassie Dahl, in her first year teaching business classes, said the first weeks were tough, "trying to teach keyboarding and computer applications without computers." But even then, "the students realized that this is the situation we're in. They handled it well."

Older students who drive from Northwood are fretting over the price of gas, and parking is tight around the Hatton school. Mark Wallace, a senior, said he shares driving duties with three other students.


But the commute is a joy for Justin Holkesvig, 7, who lives near Portland, N.D., but enrolls at Northwood, where his mother teaches.

"I get to ride a bus and spend more time with Jamie," he said, pointing out classmate Jamie Gorres, 8.

'See you at lunch'

Katie Ellingson and Mark Aamold, seniors at Hatton, joined Wallace and Northwood junior Callie Berg to assess how the two schools have come together.

"The first day, we had no idea what we were doing, but nobody yelled at each other," Berg said.

And there are advantages: A Hatton boy dating a Northwood girl is 20 minutes closer. A basketball coach or play director doesn't have to work the phones or e-mail to assemble a team for practice or a cast for rehearsal.

"It just feels normal," Ellingson said. "Even when it started, it wasn't weird to see the Northwood kids here. We already knew them so well."

Students from both high schools have started talking already about prom. There is strong sentiment, Ellingson said, for holding one big dance, not two.


"I hope we have a joint prom," she said. "Most of us go to both anyway."

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