Bethel school finds new home in vacated grocery store

Bethel’s Ayaprun Yup’ik Immersion School is readying to move into its new home. After a fire destroyed the elementary school in November, district officials divided the grades under two roofs, resumed classes, and began looking for a new building. True to rural Alaska resourcefulness, the district found a new space in one of the unlikeliest of places.

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“There’re two kindergarten classes and two first grade classes on this side. The other side are the second and third graders. Then over here, once the refrigeration islands are gone, this will be a enclosed room for gym activities,” said Bill Murdock, project manager for the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Murdock showed me around Ayaprun’s new space.

Empty freezers line the new Ayaprun. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK - Bethel)
Empty freezers line the new Ayaprun. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK – Bethel)

Empty freezers stand beside us. Above us, banners of Swiss cheese and milk hang from the ceiling. And making a 360, I read in large capital letters Meat, Bakery, Deli, and Garden Fresh.

The new Ayaprun is inside a vacated grocery store.

But instead of shelving aisles, a series of low walls stretch out, forming classrooms. And men, wearing work boots and white dust, roam about, painting and plastering.

Warren Nicolei is rigging electrical outlets. He’s a construction inspector for the school district.

“We got done with all the walls this week, and we’re installing doors and doing all our finishing home runs,” Nicolei said.

Nicolei has three kids at Ayaprun. He says he grew up speaking Yugtun and didn’t pick up English until he was five. It’s important for him, he says, that his kids are educated in the Yup’ik culture and language.

“They’re puqigtut. Puqigtut means bright,” said Nicolei. “They grew up listening to their grandparents speaking [Yugtun], and when we travel to my hometown in Kwethluk, they listen to it all the time, and they understand what’s being said. I’m happy that they get that base.”

This move to a new building is to make sure the school can continue providing that base— to put Ayaprun back under one roof and fulfill the immersion part of the school’s mission.

Low walls form Ayaprun’s new classrooms inside the vacant grocery store. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK - Bethel)
Low walls form Ayaprun’s new classrooms inside the vacant grocery store. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK – Bethel)

Ayaprun teacher John Cacuchin says the school hasn’t been able to do that being split between the District Office and Gladys Young Elementary where English surrounds the students.

“It’ll make a big difference, because when we had our own building, we focused mainly on Yugtun,” Cacuchin said. “And then when we were fortunate enough to be in the DO and Gladys, the focus came away from the Yugtun, and now we’ll be focused on speaking Yugtun and learning Yugtun.”

Ayaprun has never had a school of its own. Since the charter school began over 20 years ago, the school district has shuffled it between various shared spaces. It’ll be splitting this new building—called the Kipusvik— with the local cinema, which will keep its regular hours during evenings and weekends.

The school district is leasing the building from the Bethel Native Corporation for three to five years, until the district builds a new school. Which means all the work in the Kipusvik is temporary.

“So when we go to take it out, you won’t tell that we were here. There’s no holes in the floors, in the walls or anywhere,” said Murdock . “It’s been a problem solving adventure.”

Workers rig electrical outlets while the school board tours in the background. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK - Bethel)
Workers rig electrical outlets while the school board tours in the background. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK – Bethel)

Murdock says everything is clipped, strapped, and braced into place. As part of the lease agreement, his crew can’t impact the building. That’s why the classroom walls are low, less than six feet tall, so the fire alarm and sprinkler system can reach everything without renovation.

Murdock gave the school board a tour of the school last week. Board Chair Susan Murphy has long advocated for Ayaprun to have its own building, saying it’s important for the school’s mission and identity. This new space, she says is a step in that direction.

“I have a little great grandson who’s in kindergarten, and I was looking at it through his eyes, and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to love it, they’ll have so much more room.’ And it smells new, and that’s what they need right now,” Murphy said.

March 15 marks the first day of school in the new building. To celebrate, Ayaprun’s kindergarten through third graders gathered outside the district office Friday. Surrounded by parents and teachers, the students formed a big circle and began to dance and sing.

One parent couldn’t be at the gathering, Inspector Nicolei. He was working at the Kipusvik, making sure the kids had something to dance and sing about.