Gruening Middle School teachers and staff take first look at earthquake damage

A structural engineer address the crowd on a tour of the damage at Gruening Middle School
David Stierwalt, one of the engineers working on repairs at Gruening Middle School, takes questions from the crowd. This the first time many teachers and staff have been able to tour the damage inside the school since the earthquake in 2018. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Should Gruening Middle School be rebuilt? It’s a question some people have after the Eagle River school suffered severe damage during the 2018 earthquake. 

The Anchorage School District believes that it should, and has added repairs and upgrades to the building on a hefty bond proposal that could end up on the April municipal ballot. 

But, some people remain unconvinced. Last week, the district opened the school up to teachers, staff, and community members who wanted to see the damage for themselves.

On the tour, they had an opportunity to speak directly with architects and engineers about what happened inside the building and why, including whether or not shaky soil beneath the school is one reason why it suffered so much damage.  

David Stierwalt, a structural engineer, walked the group through the gym.

“As we get to the gym, you’ll see six holes in the gym floor where they actually drilled through the floor into the soil,” he explained. “There’s lots of different geotechnical problems that could have caused something like that. They looked for all of them. They found none of them.”

The Gruening Middle School gym floor. Traffic cones indicated where geotechnical engineers drilled through the floor into the soil to check for any geotechnical issues beneath the school
Traffic cones indicates where geotechnical engineers drilled through the floor of the Gruening Middle School gym into the soil beneath it. There was a belief that the school suffered such significant damage because the soil it sits on is not sound, but engineers found the soil to be competent. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Gruening suffered the most damage of any school in the district during the earthquake and will receive the bulk of the money in the school bond proposal for repairs and seismic upgrades. 

The tour comes after an hours long school board meeting in November, during which the board passed the $82.8 million bond proposal. There was also a subsequent town hall meeting where hundreds of people showed up to debate the issue and grill district officials.

Read more: Capacity and safety animate debate over post-earthquake plan for Chugiak-Eagle River Schools

Gruening Middle School principal Bobby Jefts organized the tour. He said he had been inside the school several times, and he wanted his staff to see it too.

“I think there’s a lot of angst among all of us because of that earthquake, and that’s going to be hard to overcome,” he said. “I think just being able to come into this building and hear what these engineers have to say, hopefully it’ll help a lot of our staff.”

Jefts said he thinks the building did well during the earthquake, and the proposed repairs and upgrades would help it perform better and the future.

“This will be a continued great educational environment for future generations of Alaskan kids” he said.

Members of the tour walk past support beams holding up a wall that separated from the roof at Gruening Middle School.
Members of the tour walk past a series of support beams holding up a wall that separated from the roof at Gruening Middle School during the 2018 earthquake. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media.)

Stephanie Campbell is a Social Studies and Language Arts teacher at Gruening. She was at the school when the earthquake happened and has since moved with her students to Chugiak High where the middle and high schools now share a campus. She said this is the first time that she has been able to actually go back inside Gruening and look around.

Read more: Gruening Middle School teachers pack up their classrooms for quake-induced move to Chugiak High

“I think for a lot of teachers when we were all kind of standing that Multi-Purpose Room, it was a little emotional for us,” she said. “Because we haven’t really had time to walk around the school yet.”

She said that at first she didn’t know if she wanted to return to the school even if it reopened. But she felt better after she spoke to the engineers and saw the building for herself.

Anchorage School District Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth says that was the goal: to be transparent with staff and the community. That’s why he asked the architects and engineers to lead the tours rather than leading them himself.

Anchorage School District Chief Operating Officer talks to the crowd.
Anchorage School District Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth addresses the crowd during a tour of the damage at Gruening Middle School. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

“People can form their own judgments about the school and whether they think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “But I want to make sure that they’re making those judgments, that they’re basing those on facts, good information, and truth as best as we can present it.”

Architects hope to complete the design phase of the project around the time of elections in April. If Anchorage voters approve the school bond Gruening could be ready to open by the fall of 2021.