District holds first meeting on future of Chugiak-Eagle River schools
The task of untangling the complex web of choices, courses, controversies and complications concerning Chugiak-Eagle River schools began Tuesday night at Chugiak High, where about 200 people gathered for the first in a series of public meetings that will help determine the future of virtually every Anchorage School District student living north of Muldoon Road.
“We have a lot of work to do,” ASD superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop said that the outset of the meeting, which was attended by district officials and members of the Anchorage School Board.
The hastily scheduled meeting was the first of four planned in Chugiak-Eagle River over the next week to gather community input on “short-term” solutions for how to best deal with the community’s roughly 1,000 earthquake-displaced elementary and middle-school students.
Tuesday’s meeting was specific to secondary school issues, while a 6 p.m. meeting Wednesday at Eagle River High School will deal with elementary school issues. Follow-up meetings to give the public a summary of input gathered will be held Feb. 20 at Eagle River High and Feb. 21 at Chugiak High.
District officials began the meeting by giving a brief recap of the situation on the ground in Eagle River, where both Eagle River Elementary and Gruening Middle School have been shuttered indefinitely due to damage sustained in the Nov. 30, 2018 earthquake. Though there were few new details to give, ASD chief operating officer Tom Roth said the district will have a comprehensive engineering report by the end of the month.
“We are waiting for the actual analysis,” said Roth, who told the crowd initial assessments showed Gruening may have suffered soil displacement as well as a cracked stairwell and at least one detached wall.
The Gruening closure had forced the school’s nearly 600 students to be housed at Chugiak High, which was at about half its 1,618-student capacity before the quake. Roth said the fact Chugiak was able to absorb an entire school population was fortunate because it allowed Gruening students and teachers to remain together under one roof.
However, he said school officials also recognize the solution isn’t perfect.
“We know we put a middle school inside a high school,” he said.
Following the introductory remarks, the crowd was split into seven classrooms where ASD staff moderated small group sessions in which people shared their ideas for how secondary education in Chugiak-Eagle River should look in the near future.
Among the main options being floated by the district for next year include combining Chugiak and Eagle River High into one high school and sending Gruening students to Eagle River High; keeping Gruening kids at Chugiak; or shifting boundaries to split Gruening students between Mirror Lake, Central and Clark Middle schools. Based on comments during Tuesday’s breakout sessions, the latter option appears to be a nonstarter among independent-minded Chugiak-Eagle River residents.
“It’s a horrible idea to send kids to Anchorage,” one woman said to a smattering of applause during a breakout session held in Paul McDonogh’s science classroom.
Versions of the other two options, however, have drawn significant debate in coffee shops and social media comment sections since the district included them in an online survey released last week. On Tuesday, some people spoke in favor of combining the area’s two high schools, while others argued preserving the schools’ distinct identities should be taken into consideration.
Some did not speak at all, preferring to comment online rather than at Tuesday’s meeting. Roth said more than 2,000 people have filled out the district’s online surveys so far, which school officials will use to inform their decisions going forward. The survey period closes Feb. 15, and on Feb. 20 the district will release all public comments on its website.
The district also provided some school enrollment numbers at Tuesday’s meeting. According to ASD, there are currently 587 middle school students enrolled at Gruening and 666 enrolled at Mirror Lake (which has a capacity of 978) for a total Chugiak-Eagle River middle school population of 1,253. Of those, about 300 live on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Chugiak High’s enrollment is currently 886 and Eagle River’s is 819 for a total high school population of 1,705. Eagle River’s capacity is 973. According to ASD, 84 Chugiak students and 273 ERHS students live on base. Bartlett High — which also serves JBER — has a current enrollment of about 1,400 and a capacity of around 2,000.
Whatever is ultimately decided, parents said their most pressing concern is finding a way for Gruening students to regain their identity. Although Chugiak has been a welcoming environment, many parents said they’d like to see more done to keep middle- and high-school students separated in the future.
“It doesn’t feel like a school within a school,” said parent Katy Masterson.
Some parents worried that having Gruening students at school alongside older teens has exposed the middle schoolers to bad influences.
Also looming over Tuesday’s discussions were the still unaddressed long-term solutions. It’s unknown if Gruening will ever be usable again, and some parents worried Tuesday that any “short-term” fix could morph into a long-term solution.
“It frustrates me it’s being called short term,” Masterson said.
Oscar Hall said military families in the area need to know how to best plan for the future, and asked aloud when long-term plans would be made. But district officials say there’s still just too many unknown variables — including structural reports and how much federal disaster aid the district will receive — to make those decisions just yet.
“Sometime here very shortly we hope to be talking long term,” said assistant superintendent Dr. Mark Stock.
Elisa Snelling, who chairs the school board ad hoc committee that oversaw the introductory meeting, said she was pleased with the tone and turnout Tuesday.
“It warms me to see an engaged community,” she said.
Snelling urged patience with the process, and said more information will be available for the public to weigh during the Feb. 21 meeting.
“We have to do this one piece at a time.”