District unveils public comments, short-term recommendations for Gruening, ERES

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 13:56
  • Eagle River Elementary School as photographed on Feb. 20, 2019. The school has been closed since Nov. 30, 2018 due to earthquake damage. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Redrawn school boundaries, relocatable classrooms and the continued combination of a middle and high school are among the Anchorage School District’s preferred options for a pair of earthquake damaged schools in Eagle River.

The district unveiled its recommendations Tuesday and Wednesday during meetings with the Anchorage School Board and the public in Anchorage and Eagle River. The plans include redrawing elementary school boundaries to accommodate displaced Eagle River Elementary School (ERES) students and keeping Gruening Middle School students at Chugiak High.

The district has also released the results of an online survey and public comments about the plans taken last week.

Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop joined district officials, school board members and elementary school principals for a presentation Wednesday night in the Eagle River High School cafeteria to discuss the recommendations. She acknowledged the plans might not be the best option for everyone, but the district believes they’re the most cost effective and least disruptive to all parties.

For Eagle River Elementary, the recommendation is to temporarily realign Eagle River’s elementary school boundaries, which would shift students currently zoned for ERES into Homestead or Birchwood ABC. That option was preferred among 114 ERES parents who filled out an online survey and will keep families together, according to the district.

The district wants to move the ERES Open Optional program to Fire Lake Elementary. Survey participants said they favored placing the program at Homestead, but according to the district, Fire Lake has available space and is interested in housing the program. Also, the district said housing the open optional program at Fire Lake will also require two relocatable buildings instead of four or more needed at Homestead.

At Gruening, the recommendation for 2019-20 is simpler: keep the status quo by keeping Gruening students at Chugiak High. That was the most preferred option on the district’s survey — which did not include a much-discussed option to house Gruening students at Eagle River High while combining ERHS and Chugiak High on the Chugiak campus. Combining high schools was the top public comment according to the district. However, the local school communities have been sharply divided on the issue, with the second-most comment being not to combine the high schools.

District officials said Wednesday that’s a long-term possibility but wouldn’t be feasible for 2019-20.

“That does not mean that cannot be a long-term conversation,” said ASD deputy superintendent Dr. Mark Stock.

The district’s recommendations are contingent on board approval. The school board will take public testimony on the issue at its March 4 meeting and make a final decision on the plans March 18.

The district has not yet taken up the long-term planning for how to handle the hundreds of students attending school at other campuses in Chugiak-Eagle River. Students from Gruening have been going to school at Chugiak High, while ERES students have been split by grade level between Ravenwood, Birchwood ABC and Homestead Elementary.

It’s unknown when — or if — Gruening and ERES will ever be occupied again. The district said it’s hoping to have engineering reports back on the schools by the beginning of next month.

Wednesday’s meeting included an open forum, where elementary school parents asked whether or not the “short term” solutions were really going to turn into long-term fixes and questioned the district on how specifically the moves would work. For example, Birchwood ABC (Anchorage Basic Curriculum) has a highly structured program where students are expected to say “please, thank you, yes ma’am, no sir” and parents wondered how the integration of new students into the mix would work. Other parents said they worried about class sizes at the schools set to take in ERES students.

District officials said that in many cases, the specifics are still being worked out, but assured parents they’re working with school principals to make transitions as smooth as possible. If parents want more options, they can also apply for zone exemptions or enter the district’s school lottery by the March 22 deadline.

“Those are still possibilities for people,” Stock said.

Bishop said no full-time positions will be cut and that student-to-teacher ratios will remain the same, though some teachers will have to move to different schools.

“We put the teachers were the students are,” Bishop said.

A second community input summary meeting will be held to discuss secondary school comments and recommendations Thursday at 6 p.m. at Chugiak High.

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