Chugiak facelift, new faces at local schools highlight 2019-20 school year
Chugiak High has houseguests — but they’re getting a new front door.
The school is about to settle in for two years as two-schools-in-one while Gruening Middle School co-opts its space while its building undergoes major earthquake repairs.
“It’s kind of like having houseguests that won’t leave,” joked Chugiak principal Megan Hatswell as she described how both school staffs are working to make the best with what they’ve got.
Chugiak has seen some changes over the summer. In addition to earthquake repairs (the Steve Primis Auditorium is now open), the school got new lights in its two gyms, fresh paint and carpet in a couple of previously unused classrooms, an upgraded intercom system and a new main entrance that Hatswell said is far more secure than the old doors.
“Now everyone will have to come right through here,” Hatswell said as workers worked to complete the project by the first day of school, which for most students in the Anchorage School District is Tuesday, Aug. 20.
The school is also getting new security cameras and has six relocatable classrooms outside. Some of the upgrades and additions were planned — such as the new, more efficient gym lights — while others were done to give Gruening its own space.
“The upgrades are going to be better for students and teachers,” Hatswell said.
When Gruening students were hastily moved to Chugiak last year, the school’s roughly 600 students were scattered throughout the building. This year, Hatswell said GMS students will mostly attend classes in “House 2,” where a cluster of rooms have been set aside near the relocatables.
“We were able to move out some of the Chugiak classes and move the Gruening classes over so they have kind of a pod,” she said.
The auxiliary gym has also been dedicated for Gruening use, giving the middle-schoolers their own locker room facilities. The new intercom system also has three settings — one for the entire building, one for Gruening-specific spaces and one for Chugiak-specific areas.
Gruening principal Bobby Jefts said he understands the sacrifice Chugiak is making to welcome his Colts into its barn.
“They’ve really been incredibly accommodating,” Jefts said.
The arrangement will last through next school year as Gruening and Eagle River Elementary undergo significant repairs from damage suffered in the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake, which shuttered both schools.
While Gruening and Chugiak students will rarely see each other (Hatswell said there are only two minutes in the entire day when students will be passing in the halls), the staffs at both schools must work closely to ensure things run smoothly. Hatswell and Jefts said their clerical, security and administrative teams hold regular meetings to discuss scheduling and general issues that crop up throughout the year. The key is making sure everyone in the building knows each other and understands each other’s needs.
“We’re trying to build more of a sense of community,” Hatswell said.
Jefts said community building is essential not just among staffs — it’s also what administrators focus on with students in the early part of the school year. That means hosting events like back-to-school nights, assemblies and an orienteering event to get the year off on the right foot.
“Some of it is just as simple as learning how to open a locker,” Jefts said.
Hatswell said that if she and the other administrators at the new mash-up school do their jobs well, students shouldn’t even notice and teachers should be free to do what they do best. That’s just fine with Hatswell, who said at the end of the day, all of the changes and improvements are being done to make her facility a better place to learn.
“I want to get back to the academics,” she said.
Both principals said they’re optimistic about the year and excited about overcoming the unique challenges they’ll be faced with over the next two years.
“We’d love to be back at our campus but it’s just not meant to be for the foreseeable future,” Jefts said. “But we’re making it work.”
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL SHAKE-UP
The Chugiak-Gruening situation is the biggest news of the 2019-20 school year in Chugiak-Eagle River, but it’s not the only earthquake-related shake-up in the area. Far from it. Things are much different at four area elementary schools than they were this time last year following the temporary closure of Eagle River Elementary. Over the winter, the Anchorage School District decided to split that school’s roughly 400 students between three local schools — Fire Lake, Homestead and Birchwood ABC — while the school is repaired.
While that fix won’t necessitate new intercom systems, it does mean schools have to integrate new students, staff and families into their now more crowded facilities.
For Homestead principal Dr. Jane Stuart, that meant starting early. She said her school hosted a welcome night last spring so former Eagle River Elementary families who now found themselves in her district could start getting to know school staff.
“It was a very casual way to start to get to know each other,” she said.
Like Hatswell and Jefts, Stuart said the most important part of her job is making everyone connected with her school feel like they have a home at Homestead.
“We’re just working to build positive community, a positive culture,” she said.
NEW LEADERS EMBRACE CHALLENGES, OPPORTUNITIES
In addition to taking on students from the Eagle River Elementary Open Optional program, Fire Lake principal Daniel Salazar has the added challenge of being one of four new head principals in Chugiak-Eagle River. But like his colleagues, the former Government Hill Elementary teacher is also focusing on family.
“My focus for this school year is making the new Fire Lake a united school,” he said.
Unlike at the secondary level — where older and younger students are kept separate — elementary principals said they’re working hard to fully integrate their new community members.
“The existing Fire Lake staff has tried to embrace everyone with open arms,” he said.
Salazar is no stranger to Fire Lake, having served as a fill-in principal at the school for two months last year. Already knowing many of the faces in the building, he said, will be a big help in his first year.
“I feel like I have gotten that relationship piece out of the way,” he said.
Other area schools that have new principals include Mirror Lake Middle School, Chugiak Elementary and Eagle Academy Charter School.
New Mirror Lake principal Allison Susel is also a familiar face in the area. Though not necessarily at MLMS, Susel was previously an assistant at Chugiak High just up the road and said she’s lucky to be coming into a building that has a strong academic tradition at Mirror Lake.
“I certainly want to come in and honor those traditions and some of the great work that’s already been done,” she said.
Beyond that, she said her first order of business as the school’s top educator will be to learn.
“Listening and building relationships is my top priority,” said Susel, who previously worked as Hatswell’s assistant and served as acting principal last year while the Chugiak principal was on maternity leave.
Another school with a strong academic reputation — the strongest, in fact — is Eagle Academy Charter School, where new principal Deanne Carroll takes over the school with the highest test scores in the state after leading the district’s Family Partnership Charter School.
Carroll said that like Susel, she’s excited to be stepping into a school where expectations are high.
“The most important thing I’ve been doing is just gathering as much information as I can,” she said.
Carroll said she’s most excited about working with students on a day-to-day basis more than at Family Partnership, which is the district’s homeschool charter program.
“There’s a certain level of energy that comes with being in a building with kids all day,” she said.
Chugiak Elementary’s new leader is Heather Mildon, who came to the school from the district office after serving as a principal supervisor. Mildon — who has previously been a head principal at Orion Elementary and Chester Valley Elementary — said she’s also looking forward to getting back into a situation where she’s interacting with students on a daily basis.
“It’s exciting because you get to know kids and develop relationships with them as well as work with staff on a daily basis,” she said.
Mildon said she’s received a warm welcome from staff and parents at the close-knit school, which maintains a community garden and held an event where parents helped spruce up the school grounds earlier this year.
“Everyone’s just been so friendly,” she said.
Mildon said she’s as excited as she’s been for a first day of school.
“I can’t wait.”
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274