Schools reopen in Chugiak-Eagle River
By Matt Tunseth
Chugiak-Eagle River Star
Educators are leaning into a new normal at schools in Chugiak-Eagle River, where campuses have been combined due to the closure of Eagle River Elementary and Gruening Middle School in the wake of the Nov. 30 earthquake.
“I’m actually pretty excited about the opportunity,” said Gruening Middle School principal Bobby Jefts, whose 600 students will attend the rest of the school year at Chugiak High.
Chugiak reopened Monday to high school, students after a weeklong closure that began at 8:29 a.m. Nov. 30 when the magnitude 7.0 quake caused widespread damage. The school will welcome Gruening students Tuesday.
The earthquake will also force combined school campuses at Birchwood ABC, Ravenwood and and Homestead Elementary, which are taking in more than 400 students displaced by the Eagle River Elementary closure. Both Gruening and Eagle River Elementary sustained major damage and won’t be opened for the rest of the 2018-19 school year, according to district officials.
As the first bell rang at Chugiak Monday, students appeared to be getting back to normal at the school, which suffered damage to its auxiliary gym, several bathrooms and other areas. Acting principal Allison Susel said the only thing still closed is the auditorium after a massive clean-up effort that involved teachers, administrators, district staff, contractors and volunteers.
“We had literally hundreds of volunteers show up over the course of a couple days,” Susel said.
When Gruening students are added into the mix, Chugiak’s student body will effectively increase from about 900 to around 1,500. However, the school has a capacity of 1,618 and is well prepared to absorb the extra students said Susel, a 1998 CHS grad.
“When I went to school here we had over 2,000 students,” she said.
Things will be a little tighter at the three area elementary schools taking on new students. At Birchwood ABC, an additional 214 fourth through 6th graders will be added, increasing the student body from 254 to 468. Homestead (which previously held 316 students) will add an additional 176 kindergarten through 3rd grade students, while Ravenwood will take in 34 additional pre-kindergartners.
Anchorage School District spokeswoman Catherine Esary said Ravenwood and Birchwood will be over capacity, but said there is enough room to house all the new students.
At Chugiak, integrating an entire middle school will come with a variety of logistical challenges, Susel said. Middle school classrooms are spread out amongst the school, and some spaces — such as art and music rooms — will have to be shared.
“What we’re doing is unprecedented as far as trying to make this work midstream on a shorter timeline,” said Susel, who noted that administrators will reevaluate how things work and make tweaks over the upcoming winter break.
Susel said she thinks the combined schools will be able to find ways to work together. Among the things administrators are considering are a mentoring program for younger students, and Susel said between 75 and 100 Chugiak students will work as “ambassadors” to help Gruening teachers and students find their way around the new school.
“I think we’re trying to find a balance of welcoming them into Chugiak as well as letting them have their own space,” she said. “It’s a pretty big change and we’re not wanting to overwhelm them.”
Susel said her staff is fired up at the opportunity to work with Gruening teachers and find ways to cooperate.
“When I presented it to our staff that they were coming over here, they cheered,” she said.
There will be some small changes for students. For example, Gruening’s lunch schedule has been altered and the school is looking at a new bus route to serve kids who previously walked to school.
But Jefts said administrators will try to keep things as “normal” as possible under the circumstances.
“It was a big shock to our community but we’ll make it happen,” he said.
Like Susel, Jefts is excited about the challenge presented by the disruption.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” he said.
There will be opportunities for students to build spirit at the new combined school, too. Susel said Gruening students are participating in Chugiak’s “Spirit Week” and will be invited to an all-school assembly Friday. And, she said, teachers have already started looking for a nickname for the new school that reflects its shared student body of Colts and Mustangs.
“We started lovingly calling this place ‘The Ranch,’” she said.
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.