Gruening, Eagle River Elementary to remain closed through 2019-20 school year

Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - 13:05
  • Temporary supports prop up the walls at Eagle River Elementary School, which was severely damaged in the Nov. 30, 2018 earthquake. On Tuesday, the Anchorage School District announced both Eagle River Elementary and Gruening Middle School will be closed for the 2019-20 school year. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • A placard outside Eagle River Elementary School warns people of “wall collapse” at the school, which was severely damaged in the Nov. 30, 2018 earthquake. On Tuesday, the Anchorage School District announced both Eagle River Elementary and Gruening Middle School will be closed for the 2019-20 school year. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

A Tuesday night announcement by the Anchorage School District sent another aftershock through an already battered Chugiak-Eagle River.

In a public letter, ASD superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop said Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary School will be closed for all of the 2019-20 school year. The announcement extends closures that began Nov. 30, 2018, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake left both buildings severely damaged.

“The District is committed to our students and staff and we understand the duress that this situation is causing students, parents, and staff affected by the earthquake,” wrote Bishop, who said ASD has made no decisions on the long-term future of either school. “This is a complex problem and future decisions will affect and influence many of the District’s schools in Eagle River and Chugiak.”

Students from the closed facilities have been attending other area schools since returning to class a week after the quake. About 600 middle-schoolers from Gruening have been moved to Chugiak High, while Eagle River Elementary’s roughly 400 students have been split between Birchwood ABC, Homestead and Ravenwood Elementary Schools.

Gruening students will remain at Chugiak through the 2019-20 school year, but the district has yet to make a decision about elementary programs. The transition for middle-school programs has gone relatively smooth at Chugiak, which was already well under capacity.

“Feedback from staff and parents indicates that this arrangement appears to be working well and the District is fortunate that CHS can house the GMS program with limited and manageable impact,” she wrote.

Determining what to do with the elementary school programs won’t be as easy. Students from the school were split up by grade levels, but Bishop said ASD may opt for a different arrangement in 2019-20.

“The District will evaluate, with the school community’s stakeholders, the benefits of keeping families together in one school or dividing students by grade levels among elementary schools as is the present case,” she wrote.

Built in 1961, Eagle River Elementary in downtown Eagle River suffered cracks in its concrete walls, which are currently being propped up from the outside with temporary support beams. At Gruening, initial assessements showed major damage to a stairwell and interior concrete facade at the 35-year-old school, which is located about a mile up the Eagle River Valley from the shuttered elementary school.

It’s unknown when — or even if — students will be able to return to either school.

“Of note, this announcement is specific to the coming academic year and doese not infer pending decisions on the future status of those buildings or a projected timeline to complete any actions,” she said.

The district has previously explored closing Gruening and turning nearby Eagle River High into a middle school. In 2015, the Anchorage School Board considered the idea after board member Eric Croft called for a public discussion about the proposal.

Gruening has been dogged by structural problems since its construction in the early 1980s. The school’s planned opening date was pushed back a year after engineers discovered problems with the design and construction of the school’s roof.

More information can also be found on the district’s website, asdk12.org or on its social media platforms. Here’s the complete letter released Tuesday by the district:

January 22, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

To School Board, Staff/Families of affected schools, Media, and posted online ASD District News (linked to Earthquake Hot Topics page):

Good evening staff and families (Eagle River Elementary School and Gruening Middle School, Chugiak High, Ravenwood, Homestead, and Birchwood school communities),

Before this evening’s School Board meeting, the School Board and I would like to share information with you pertaining to the continuing plans for students at Eagle River Elementary School and Gruening Middle School.

Based on structural engineer reports recently received by the Administration, the Anchorage School District has determined that Gruening Middle School (GMS) and Eagle River Elementary School (ERES) buildings, which were significantly damaged during the November 30 earthquake, will not be available for the 2019-2020 academic year. Of note, this announcement is specific to the coming academic year and does not infer pending decisions on the future status of those buildings or a projected timeline to complete any actions.

The District is committed to our students and staff and we understand the duress that this situation is causing students, parents, and staff affected by the earthquake. This is a complex problem and future decisions will affect and influence many of the District’s schools in Eagle River and Chugiak. We are committed to be transparent and to provide as much information as is available. When possible, we want to engage our community partners to inform outcomes.

The District is actively working to anticipate needs and plan for both the GMS and ERES programs to ensure we provide an outstanding education and experience for our students. We continue to learn and adapt from the measures we implemented following the earthquake.

Specific to the next academic year, the District plans to sustain the GMS program at its current location within Chugiak High School (CHS). Feedback from staff and parents indicates that this arrangement appears to be working well and the District is fortunate that CHS can house the GMS program with limited and manageable impact.

As a divided program, ERES presents a more complex problem. The District is working to assess the current program as it exists in Homestead Elementary, Birchwood ABC, and Ravenwood Elementary schools. Following the earthquake, the District chose to keep ERES students with their teachers when apportioning student populations to the gaining schools. As it was mid-year, the continuation of teacher/student relationships allowed teachers to provide their students with emotional supports needed because of the traumatic event. As summer provides for a normal and anticipated classroom transition, the District will evaluate, with the school community’s stakeholders, the benefits of keeping families together in one school or dividing students by grade levels among elementary schools as is the present case.

We appreciate the cooperation and teamwork of the entire Eagle River and Chugiak communities in providing assistance and meeting the ongoing needs of students and families.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Deena Bishop

ASD Superintendent

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