By Mark Nicklawske

The Hills Youth and Family Services and Duluth Public Schools have delivered new life to a humble little school building abandoned near the woods below Hawk Ridge in Duluth.

Rockridge Academy opened its doors this January to about 100 young people enrolled in The Hills residential and day treatment programs.The former Duluth School District K-2 elementary school sat empty and had been listed for sale since 2011.

The Duluth School District, which oversees The Hills education programs, agreed last spring to reopen and lease parts of its Rockridge building in Lakeside to the Hills so its Woodland Hills Academy could move out of the former Cobb Elementary School. About 13 teachers plus building staff work with the program.

The move also led to a name change from Woodland Hills Academy to Rockridge Academy.

The repurposed building quickly updated the school learning environment. The old three-story Cobb Elementary School was built in 1919 and needed major repair work. Rockridge, built in 1965 with a 1992 addition, features a design and layout more compatible with modern education and counseling.

Still Principal Denise Clairmont said it was no easy task to reopen the building. The Duluth School District funded Rockridge renovation, enlisting architects, construction workers and engineers to improve school security, technology, accessibility and infrastructure.

“Obviously, it was a pretty comprehensive plan to put together,” she said. “I think it turned out great.”

Rockridge is a much more welcoming building than the old Cobb Elementary School. Rooms feature floor to ceiling windows looking out over a wooded area teaming with wildlife. Hallways are wide, well-lit and follow an easy line from the west side gymnasium to the east end art room. A view out the main entrance offers a peek at Lake Superior.

“It’s a lovely building,” said Clairmont. “We were all excited about moving in here. Even the students, on the first day, they walked in and said: ‘This is a real school.’”

Clairmont said the facility features a well-stocked library, a small but welcoming gym, a modern art room, new classroom desks and a cohesive space for staff. The Hills residential students are bussed from the Woodland campus while surrounding communities provide bus transportation for day students.

Art teacher Kelly Dupre said the move greatly improved her classroom. Students have a large clean-up sink, an attached kiln room, better lighting and more space. “This is awesome,” she said. “I’m really excited. This is such a great building.”

Students in grades seven to 12 participate in six-period days structured like regular middle or high school programs. Basic classes like English, math and science are taught along with health, gym and art. Title 1 services are also available.

About one-third of Rockridge students have special education needs.

Clairmont said most students will spend less than a year at Rockridge Academy. The goal is to move students into a mainstream school or to lead them to graduation. Many Rockridge students, she said, are the first in their family to graduate. “We take students from wherever they come from and try to give them the best education we can.”

The building will help reach those goals.

“We feel like we have a new home, we have a new school,” she said. “But obviously it’s the student’s school and we hope they like it.”