Anchorage schools resume classes post-earthquake, with some students relocated

The billboard at Birchwood ABC Elementary, highlighting the mascots — and new combined mascot — of the students attending. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District classes resumed today after being closed for more than a week following last month’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake. While most of the students are in the schools they’ve attended all year, two schools had to relocate because of significant damage.

Audrey Tally has two kids who attend Eagle River Elementary School; her son Colten is a 4th grader and her daughter Kenley is a second grader. During last month’s earthquake, their school sustained damage that closed it for the rest of the school year. That means Kenley and Colten will now go to two separate schools. That’s because K through 3rd graders are being relocated to Homestead Elementary and older kids will attend Birchwood ABC.

Tally said her son, who is in a special education program, is having a hard time adjusting to the move.

“He does not like transition,” Tally said. “He doesn’t like new things, and he’s got trouble like even when there’s substitutes in his class.”

Tally also says that her two kids are very close, and the fact that they’re going to different schools is giving them separation anxiety.

It’s a problem that Birchwood principal Michael Thomas has heard from several parents who have kids going to two different schools.

“Some of it is based on capacity. We don’t have rooms in our fourth grades here, and they don’t, then that split is an unfortunate situation that has to do with that,” Thomas said. “I’ve worked with parents who want to zone-exempt their child into our school. But the caveat in that is that it’s based in student numbers.”

He says getting a zone exemption – that would allow Tally’s kids to go to school together – would only work if the school wasn’t at max capacity for the grade. Thomas says he and the staff at Birchwood have tried to make the incoming students feel like they’re part of the school — they’ve even combined the two school mascots.

“You know, Birchwood ABC is the Colts, Eagle River Elementary is the Eagles. When you combine that you get a powerful Pegasus,” Thomas said. “So we’ve kind of run with that theme of the powerful Pegasus.”

Another issue the school is addressing is how to get students back to a state of normalcy after the natural disaster. Principal Thomas says that the school has been staffed with extra counselors to help get kids through the transition. The teachers have also been briefed about how to interact with their students after this unusual break.

“We talked a lot about social-emotional learning when they first come back, and hearing their story and making them feel comfortable and ready to go,” Thomas said. “And then getting back to a routine schedule as soon as you can because then, that’s how people move on through this.”

Tally says she’s happy with how accommodating the schools have been with the transition, whether it’s figuring out new bus schedules or the stream of communication from the district.

“I know that I had a question about my son’s meds, and so the Eagle River nurse had contacted me,” Tally said. “It was very kind of her to give me her cell number so that I could that way I could get in touch with her whenever I need to”

While the Eagle River Elementary students settle into their new schools, the students at the other ASD school that needed to be relocated, Gruening Middle School in Eagle River, will begin their classes on Tuesday at their new school — Chugiak High.