West Ada’s new high school offers students “a fresh start”

The inaugural class of Owyhee High School students walked the halls for the first time on Thursday. Students navigated the school and placed their items in shiny lockers without the grime of previous owners. The trophy case in the cafeteria stood empty. Teachers’ classrooms, without projects from years past and graduation announcements from alumni, looked almost sterile.

Students said the new school gives them many opportunities, like enjoying a new facility, finding new friend groups and creating a new culture at the school.

“I look at this as a great opportunity for those who need a fresh start,” said sophomore Liv Mortensen, a member of Owyhee’s student council who attended Meridian High as a freshman.

The majority of the student body comes from Eagle, Meridian and Rocky Mountain schools in West Ada. Owyhee opened with about 1,500 students and has a capacity of 1,800 students.

After helping a few students figure out how to use the combination lockers for the first time, biology teacher and baseball coach Russ Wright started his first class, letting students know that the staff members in the school are also starting fresh.

“I’m new here as well, we’re all in the same boat,” said Wright, who came to Owyhee from Fruitland High.

Biology teacher and baseball coach Russ Wright introduces himself to his first period biology class on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Nik Streng/Idaho Education News

Hoping for a more normal year

Students are hoping for consistency this year. Jack Payne, a senior who transferred from Boise High, said he hasn’t been able to have a normal year of high school due to COVID-19, and that he struggled to stay motivated when classes were online. Jaden Kusar, also a senior, said she attended online school last year to have a consistent schedule. Before that, Kusar attended Bishop Kelly.

Mortensen said she never felt like she was able to settle into her freshman year because classes were switching between online and in-person. She also said she struggled to make friends when her peers were masked and social distancing was enforced.

“I’m glad I get to come to Owyhee and get a fresh start here,” she said.

Students walk the hallways of Owyhee High School for the first day of school on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Nik Streng/Idaho Education News

Tucker McDonald, a junior who previously attended Rocky Mountain, said he is excited to see what assemblies will look like at Owyhee — many of the students haven’t been to a high school assembly due to COVID-19 protocols.

Masking was a mixed bag on Thursday morning. On Tuesday night, West Ada trustees voted to require staff wear masks in schools, but gave parents the option to opt their children out of wearing one. On Wednesday, nearly 4,000 opt-out forms were received by the district.

Student leadership

Along with Elle Leishin (a sophomore previously from Rocky Mountain), Payne, Kusar, Mortensen and McDonald make up the inaugural student council for Owyhee High. Since there was no spring 2021 for Owyhee High, speech teacher and student council advisor Nic Warnecke said he met with administrators and decided to try something new when voting for council members: Social Media.

The Owyhee High School Instagram account has over 2,000 followers, including most of the students. Warnecke sent students a link to vote for student council via Instagram and student email. Students were able to watch videos of those running for office and vote online over the summer.

Warnecke said it was important to get a student council together before the start of the school year so they could immediately start building a student culture, something that Principal Cliff Rice has been vocal about. To get to know each other, the student council helped with the official ribbon cutting for the school and also organized open house tours before the campus opened.

“We can make it our own,” Warnecke said.  “We just need to be very considerate of what legacy we want to start here.”

Students sit in their first class at Owyhee High School on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, the first day of classes in the district’s newest school. Nik Streng/Idaho Education News

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