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Story Last modified at 2:53 p.m. on Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jordan shares reflections on our local schools

by Lee Jordan

School bells ring Tuesday for the start of a new year of classes. Chugiak-Eagle River students will report to two high schools, a pair of middle schools and seven elementary schools operated by the Anchorage School District. There are also several private schools that offer alternative programs and a number of children will attend classes at home.

From the beginning, education of their children has been a top priority for local parents. Early settlers in February of 1947 chose the name Chugiak to identify the area from Fort Richardson north to Goat Creek. Two needs were quickly identified: fire protection and a school. The first was relatively easy to achieve as a willing crew of volunteers stepped up and some hand-me-down equipment was located.

The second priority took a little longer to bear fruit.

Alaska 64 years ago was still a territory. Chugiak was an unincorporated spot along the road north of Anchorage. Schools were financed by the federal government, with local contributions coming from an annual $10 per person "school tax" deducted from payroll checks. It was up to the Territorial Legislature to appropriate money for projects recommended by the commissioner of education. The Legislature only met every other year.

Despite the fact that they had no representation in Juneau, persistent Chugiak residents persuaded the commissioner a school was necessary, funds were appropriated by the Legislature, a school was designed and construction commenced. According to "Between Two Rivers," the official history of Chugiak-Eagle River, a two-classroom building designed to hold 45 students opened in October of 1951. When 66 children showed up for classes on opening day, a third teacher was hired and the multi-purpose room was turned into a classroom. The original husband-and-wife teaching team moved into the contractor's shack alongside the school and the third teacher and her husband, a Fort Richardson soldier, took quarters in the school's furnace room.

Chugiak's population continued to mushroom and by the time the 1960 Census was taken, the number of residents had grown to more than 2,200 from the 50 families who decided on the Chugiak name 13 years earlier. More of that growth was in the section closest to Fort Richardson, where many residents found employment. While Chugiak Elementary had been added onto with additional classrooms, even more students showed up each year than were expected.

To house the overflow, Army surplus Quonset huts were half-buried in the hillside and pressed into use. Those huts themselves were the result of extraordinary effort on the part of local citizens. Acquisition and installation of the structures were hastened through some creative persuasion on the part of Chugiak parents. Then at the height of the Cold War, the government was asked in the name of Civil Defense to make the huts available for use as "fallout shelters."

A second elementary school opened in Eagle River in 1960, constructed on ground that had been the site of the first Chugiak Spring Carnival.

A year earlier, Alaska had become the 49th of the United States. That brought school decisions closer to home and a Legislature that met yearly. A more significant change occurred in 1964 when seven boroughs were created within Alaska. Assigned to them by the Legislature was the responsibility for educating children. Chugiak was placed in the Greater Anchorage Area Borough and the local schools were transferred to the borough school district.

By the time the GAAB took over, a high school was under construction, built by the state but opening as a borough school.

Chugiak High School was another product of a persistent parent population. Until 1964, after completing the eighth grade, area students were bussed to Anchorage high schools. A teenager who lived in the far reaches of Eklutna had to get up about 4 a.m. to catch the lone bus that circled the area. She didn't get home again until past suppertime. In those days before Title IX, boys who wanted to take part in extracurricular activities were out of luck. Kids here didn't own cars in those days.

Parents were unhappy with the long hours and the exposure of their offspring to the hazards of the highway. Eagle River Hill had 13 crosses planted alongside the road to mark that many traffic deaths on the deadly incline. Residents demanded that the state build a high school. They didn't just ask: they checked records to find suitable public land that was available, conducted a census to gain needed statistics, surveyed parents to provide information substantiating the need and formed an ad-hoc committee to press their case. Ed Willis was named chairman of Operation Chugiak High School and led a delegation to Juneau to plead before the Legislature.

The young state had many needs and lobbyists from all over were making their bids for money that was tight in those pre-pipeline days. There was parochial jealousy at play, too, with Bush legislators not eager to pour more money into the Anchorage area. That was handled handily by Eagle River resident Dale Pierson, a member of the OCHS delegation. He responded to the question of where Chugiak is situated by saying, "We're located 25 miles south of Palmer." Those in the know laughed heartily. Legislators approved the money and a school designed for 400 students was built. It opened for the 1964-65 school year with Gov. Bill Egan officiating at the dedication before a standing-room-only audience.

At year's end The Star regularly does a recap of the year's news. Each year, some aspect of population growth has been the top story. The story of the original school opening to find far more pupils waiting on the doorstep than the facility was designed to hold was often retold in editorials.

"We've been trying to catch up ever since," the editor quipped.

Additional growth has been responded to by the school district, although at a slower pace than many parents desired. Administrators were not as enthusiastic as local residents who were seeing new housing being built at every turn.

Birchwood Elementary opened in 1967 on a site adjacent to Chugiak High School. Homestead followed in 1972, crammed onto a block in the midst of single-family homes in Eagle River. Fire Lake Elementary opened in 1985 in a spacious setting overlooking Lower Fire Lake and Ravenwood Elementary opened that same year on a site up Eagle River Road. Newest is Alpenglow Elementary, which opened in 1995.

A local charter school, Eagle Academy, opened in 2005 with 162 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Gruening Middle School had a rough start. Chugiak High School had been classified as a junior-senior high and was bursting at the seams. Seventh graders were moved to Eagle River Elementary and "relocatables" were stacked on the high school campus. A 1979 bond issue was approved and included money for a new junior high, scheduled to open in 1983. Unfortunately, a design flaw prevented the school's opening until extensive repairs could be made. It opened a year late. Meanwhile, the high school went on double shifts, senior high students attending in the morning and junior high students in the afternoons.

Gruening opened as a pilot program for the middle school concept. Its success brought conversion to middle schools of all Anchorage junior high programs.

Mirror Lake Middle School opened in 1997 and is unique in that it houses students in grades 6 through 8, accepting students a year earlier than other middle schools.

Newest among Chugiak-Eagle River schools is Eagle River High School, which opened in 2005. Its enrollment area includes some students from Joint Base Elmendorf-Fort Richardson who formerly would have attended Bartlett. Designed for 800 students, its peak enrollment last year was 891 — fulfilling a prediction by Assembly Chair Debbie Ossiander, a former School Board member, that the design capacity would quickly be exceeded due to the community's rapid population growth.

A report of 2010-2011 peak enrollment for Chugiak-Eagle River schools as provided by the school district shows a total peak enrollment last year of 6,251 area students. The total number of pupils in private schools and who are being home-schooled is not available but could involve a few hundred more.

Last year's peak enrollment by school was Alpenglow 559, Birchwood ABC 321, Chugiak Elementary 429, Eagle River Elementary 352, Fire Lake 349, Homestead 310, and Ravenwood 418 for a total of 2923 in kindergarten through sixth grade. Gruening had 568 and Mirror Lake 666 for a total of 1221 in middle schools. Chugiak High School had 1236 while Eagle River had 891, for a total of 2127 in grades 9-12.

Birchwood's Lee Jordan is the founder and former editor/publisher of the Alaska Star newspaper. Beginning today, his column will appear once a month in the paper he first published in 1971 as the Chugiak-Eagle River Star. Find Lee online at www.byleejordan.com



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 10, 2011.