WORDEN — For many seniors, watching Huntley Project High School rise from its own ashes is bittersweet.
"It's been exciting to see how much work they've done," said Allison Walsh, a senior at the school. "And then it's sad because I know I'll never have a class there."
The new high school is scheduled to be finished this summer. The district is hoping the gym in the new building — which will seat nearly 2,000 — will be finished enough in May to host graduation.
Principal Mark Wandle hopes they can make it work.
"That'll be a great end-of-year-story for these seniors," he said.
The seniors were sophomores when the school burned down in 2008.
In the early morning on Sept. 18, that year Katie Jo Parshall and Charles James McCade, both 14 at the time, along with Gregory Three Fingers, who was 19, and Michael Victoria III, 16, twice broke into Huntley Project High School. At some point they found flammable material and decided to start a fire.
Three Fingers and Victoria had the lighters and ignited the chemicals in two different parts of the building, leading to a fire that destroyed the school. Both were convicted of arson and burglary. Parshall and McCade were convicted of burglary.
More than two years later, the new school, built on the site of the fire, is nearing completion. Most of the structural work is done and contractors are now busying themselves with the school's interior.
"It's getting really exciting," said Superintendent Wes Coy.
The new building is more than twice the size of the old high school and will house both junior high and high school students. It also connects to the district's elementary school and for the first year, fifth- and sixth-graders will have their own wing.
That setup right now sounds luxurious to students and staff who have been sitting in small, boxy, portable classrooms and walking a block to the junior high for classes.
"We're pretty much sick of the trailers," said Lily Westerhoff, a junior.
And while moving into the trailers after the fire was an adjustment for students and staff two and a half years ago, moving into a new building with space to spare will be an adjustment, too, said Jean Ott, consumer sciences teacher.
But, she added, "this time we won't have the loss to deal with."
Looking to its potential, district officials decided to build big. The gym will be large enough to house a couple thousand spectators with a commons area and concession stand to match. With the slide of a wall, its two locker rooms can be converted into four.
The idea, Coy said, was to make the building amenable to hosting invitationals and tournaments.
With the loss of the old high school, Huntley Project athletes have had to drive 20 minutes to Billings for home games, played at Billings School District 2 facilities.
"Oh, it's a pain," Coy said with a laugh.
The upgrades over the old facilities have been paid for by voters. Residents in the school district passed a $9 million, 18-year bond last year to pay for reconstruction of the high school. The district received about $5 million in insurance money.
To make sure voters are a part of the process, the district is holding a community night on March 14 when residents can see the progress on the building.
Ott's culinary arts class will be cooking for it.
"We needed a way to bring the community together," she said.
The high school that burned down was the new high school to the older generation of Worden, Ballantine and Huntley residents who attended school there. Ott said it's important for them to find a connection to the new building going up.
The school that burned was built in the late 1960s to ease growing pains at the district's original high school, which was built in the early 1930s.
The 1930s high school became the junior high and the new high school housed the district's ninth through 12th grades until it burned down.
Now, with the new building nearing completion, students, staff and community members are eager to move onto the next step of Huntley Project High School's evolution.
"People are getting excited," Wandle said.
Then he smiled. "That's probably an understatement."