This story originated from KYUK Public Media and was republished with permission.
BETHEL — In rural Alaska villages, the school is often the center of community life. It’s not only the place where children go day after day to learn, play sports, and make friends. It’s where the community comes together for daily activities such as open gym, and big events like basketball games, and carnivals. Napaskiak opened a new school on Wednesday, and much of the community came to the day-long celebration. The building carries the hope of a better future for the education of its children and the strength of its community.
As the crowd chanted the Napaskiak airport letters, principal T.J. Bentley took the mic in the new gym.
“I’d like everyone to do one thing for me,” he said. “Take a nice, deep breath. The school still has that new car smell. We’re going to try to keep it that way.”
Principal Bentley then addressed the whole community.
“If you have some ill feelings or bad feelings about the old school, leave those behind and bring those new feelings to this school,” Bentley said. “We hope that you can have a new start. We want to see everybody in this school. Joe is going to have coffee in his office. The staff room is open for people to come in and have coffee.”
Bentley said that the old school didn’t draw in the community like he hopes the new one will. The old school was built in the early 1980s over an area of swampy ground. Tenth-grader Alice Samuelson described it this way: “Old, rotten, small, coated.”
Classmate Charity Maxie said that the old school didn’t have any doors, didn’t have any privacy.
“We’d be in a class and we’d hear another teacher talking in another class,” Maxie said. “It was crowded. We had like 20 kids in one small room. We didn’t have enough space to be comfortable learning.”
Now the girls say that they will be comfortable learning with all the space and doors of the new building. But their favorite part of the new school is a whole different kind of privacy
“I’m happy for the sports locker so we don’t have to be crowded in one bathroom, changing and getting ready for practice,” Maxie said.
But Maxie said that with all this extra space comes distance from all those people and friends they were used to bumping into.
“I’ll feel some separation anxiety here, because I won’t get to see my friends often,” she said. “But it’s worth it to have a new school.”
The community chose the site for the new school. The day the doors opened, the community joined students and staff in the new gym for a day-long celebration. The gym, by the way, had bleachers for everyone, and no one had to sit on the floor.
With everybody gathered, a Russian Orthodox priest wearing gold and black robes blessed the school as a choir sang behind him. The priest then sprinkled holy water throughout the building. Afterwards, everyone gathered to eat a spaghetti lunch.
Later, students took to the floor, drumming and dancing. Student council members gave tours of the building. There were door prizes and a throw party, all donated by the community, followed by a family-versus-family basketball game.
Joseph Bavila is the school’s administrative assistant. He’s been at the school longer than most — 31 years — and says that already the school is working, bringing the community together — if nothing else, just by having a gym big enough to hold the community.
“The gym is huge! One more time, huge!” Bavila exclaimed. “It’s so huge that the whole village can go in there and still have room for more. I’m excited! Are you? Good!”
The audio in this story was recorded by KYUK intern Celina Angaiak. Listen to it on KYUK Radio’s website.