The 175 students at St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland have just made a century-long leap that aims to enhance their learning.

This month students begin to attend classes in a new building, which replaced a stately but aging and ultimately unsafe school. The new building features a computer lab, music room, Internet hookup, science lab, large windows, curving hallways and wheelchair accessibility.

'You now have something kids can use. It's not just one plug in the classroom,' says Pat Hainley, who is leading the effort to raise the $4.2 million needed for construction. Hainley, who graduated from St. Agatha in 1965, is part of a family that has been involved with the school since 1929. His own parents attended, as did his children. Now, he has a grandchild poised to begin in a few years.

Hainley is particularly pleased with the preschool room, which includes toilets about a foot high.

'It's something to behold,' he says.

When the 1911 school opened, chalkboard, pencil and books were the tools of learning.

St. Agatha's is the first new Catholic school built in the state since the late 1960s.

In the mid-1990s, when the plan was launched for a new school, engineers said the costs for updating the old building for current technology, fire code and earthquake safety would be more expensive than starting from scratch.

Parishioners in this up-and-coming neighborhood have been 'extremely generous,' says Sara Collins, principal at St. Agatha for the last 18 months.

'We've been limited in our space,' says Collins, who had led St. Anthony School in Tigard for 12 years. 'Plus, it's an old building with old systems. When the heat is on, it's 90 degrees upstairs, and in my office it's 45. Now, we feel we are moving up in the world.'

With the move, St. Agatha can expand to 240 students, preschool through eighth grade. Now that the old school is empty, workers will begin demolishing it to make way for a new gymnasium and playground. That project, which includes asbestos removal is set for completion in May, will free up the parish center, which is now being used as a makeshift gym.

The best part of the new building, Collins explains, is its support of learning. Students can simply do more with the expanded library and the new labs.

Collins now plans to focus on an upgrade of the school's curriculum.

St. Mary of Oregon Sister Marianne Giesel, whose first teaching assignment was at St. Agatha in 1960, has returned to again teach second grade. She has taught continually for more than 40 years in Catholic schools in Hillsboro and Woodburn. She appreciates the team spirit engendered by the project, from donors to staff to students.

'The togetherness is quite amazing,' Sister Marianne says. The new structure may further togetherness at St. Agatha.

Before, classes were scattered in two buildings. Children had to cross the street to get from place to place. Now, everything is under one roof.

Classrooms overlook fine restored houses. The eighth-grade windows have a lofty view of the stone St. Agatha Church.

In the new school, the noisy hallway class change may be a thing of the past. Adjacent rooms have connecting doorways.

St. Agatha students can kiss rusty pipes and bottled water goodbye. The new water fountains actually pump out drinkable stuff.

Sick children have an infirmary with a bed, a vast change from the old practice of lying in the hallway while classes file by.

Parent volunteers and tutors now have their own room.

To save money on the move, a corps of parents and older students earlier this month did the carrying of desks, chairs, tables and books. Brian Quinn, a school parent and restaurant owner, provided a meal for the 50 or so workers.

Other volunteers will build cabinets and coat closets in the classrooms.

The parish altar society gave $4,000 for cafeteria tables.

Despite the rigors of a relocation, there has been plenty of fun. During one day of the move, kindergartners processed from the new building to the old carrying their chairs. Carpenters and painters stopped to watch the parade. Getting the old building ready for demolition, a custodian ventured under a sealed-off stairwell. There, he found century-old framed images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, plus a 1913 charter from the Women's Catholic Order of Foresters.

Some of those items, plus about 12 feet of 1911 wood paneling, will be part of a history wall near the front door of the new school.

Contributors and parishioners were able to see the old school one last time Jan. 12. When the edifice falls, those who donated for the project will get one of the old bricks.

Getting the project under way has not been easy. Neighbors raised objections during the city permit process. Construction plans met with some changes, including the lowering of a roof to allow an adjacent art studio plenty of natural light.

This month came about two years later than organizers had at first hoped.

Sellwood, Collins says, has a tight-knit feel that she treasures.

'This is the kind of place where moms walk their kids to school and wait on the curb with baby carriages while the students come in,' she says. 'What a great neighborhood for a school.'