On Aug. 17, the first official day of Wellington Middle-High School, it felt like the only people in town who didn’t want to be there were the students.
Linda Knaack brought her Knaack Of It Auto team to the school to cheer for the students as they moped their way through the front doors. She and a couple employees joined at least 100 community members and a few alumni in the front and the back of the school to cheer, shake pom-poms and dance to music from the mid-2000s (which the students probably didn’t know but was a nice try by the adults).
Linda said in between students that she would not have missed it for the world. She remembers riding the bus an hour and a half one-way to Poudre High School in Fort Collins and sending her daughter, Sara, on the same bus. Wellington didn’t have a high school. It hadn’t had a high school since 1964.
“We didn’t have our central bonding thing,” Linda says of Wellington. “This will bring the town together.”
Indeed, few things give a community more common ground than a school. Look at the way college towns surrender their identities to the universities that live there, and for many small towns such as Eaton, the high school is the only place to be on crisp autumn weekends or cool spring afternoons.
The new high school is all Wellington has talked about for the last couple years, Sara says, and the conversation goes back to 2015, when members of the town gathered together in the middle school gym and asked themselves what they needed to get a high school.
“We wanted this really, really bad,” says Linda Kinzli-Biard, who was at that first meeting and the leader of the Kinzli Team at Re/Max Alliance as well as a member of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce board. “I can’t put it into words.”
It’s not easy to get a high school, of course, and problems emerged even after voters approved a 2016 bond that would fund it.
Lawsuits against Fort Collins and Timnath, designed to challenge the cities’ use of tax increment financing, were filed by community activist Eric Sutherland in 2018. They were later dismissed by a district judge as “frivolous,” but the suit delayed the schools by two years. The sophomores, especially, haven’t really had a normal year, with transitions from the pandemic back to Poudre and now to Wellington. Regardless, they will have the honor of being the first class to graduate from the new school.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” says Kelby Benedict, the school’s first principal. “They haven’t had a traditional school for a while.”
The school will initially house students in grades 6-10, with the kids moving up a grade every year until it will follow the general format of 6th to 12th grades. That’s a new format for the Poudre district, and Benedict doesn’t want it to feel like two schools smashed together. The modern design of the school may help with that, with an open floor plan and a chance to go outside in an area enclosed by the building, but he believes junior high and high school students will have a unique experience.
“I’ve had kids say, ‘Wow this feels like a community college,’” Benedict says. “We wanted to raise the level of the learning space.”
They also wanted to give students the opportunity to play sports, play in the band and spend time at their school instead of on a bus. The opportunities were there at Poudre—many emphasized that it IS a good school—but the distance made it difficult for anything beyond classes. Students, they said, weren’t getting the full high school experience.
As for those students, a few of them cheered as they walked in and one of them even high-fived the live-action Eagle mascot, but most of them looked away or flashed grins of embarrassment, and a few even stopped cold before the tunnel of adults, as if they were afraid to walk through it.
Carolyn Reed, a member of the Poudre School Board, laughed at the kids’ mostly confused expressions but looks forward to seeing them at football games.
“The entire town will be here for that,” Reed says. “It’ll be crazy.”
Dan England is NOCO Style’s assistant editor and a freelance journalist based in Greeley.