Mat-Su Borough School District staff are taking advantage of the two-week winter break to consolidate Houston Middle and High schools.

The region's 7.0 earthquake on Nov. 30 did extensive damage to Houston Middle, and students won't be allowed back in the building for the rest of the school year.

The school's nearly 400 students are moving to Houston High next door, after the district set up 13 portable classrooms around its main building.

"Most of the portables are connected by walkways," Ben Howard explained. Howard, the principal at Houston Middle, is now the new principal of the combined Houston Junior/Senior High.

On Monday, construction crews were attaching stairs and railings to the classrooms and installing electricity.

"We want to make sure everything is wired for the school with [interactive whiteboards], laptops, computers, everything for when school starts on the 7th," Howard said.

Faculty are using every space available to house the extra students. A spare library room is now the nurse's office; a multi-purpose room will now host eighth-grade social-studies classes.

"This used to be part of consumer science, where kids would learn how to sew, and now it's going to be eighth-grade science," Howard said.

At Houston Middle, movers have already packed up students' lockers and are working on classrooms that will remain empty for quite some time.

Movers box up teachers' classroom supplies at Houston Middle School

Teachers went through and marked the supplies they need transferred over.

"A lot of teachers have their own personal libraries they've collected over the years, so they want to make sure that gets over to the next facility for them to use," said safety manager Steve Paine.

Two weeks isn't much time to box up dozens of classrooms, but Paine said to goal is to have everything ready for teachers by the weekend.

"It's a huge push. There's a lot of people behind the scenes in contracting and facilities who've worked hard to make sure this happens in a timely manner," Paine said.

Howard said merging the schools for the foreseeable future comes with challenges and it will take time to get used to the changes.

He said some parents were concerned about having sixth-graders in the same hallways as seniors. Howard assures the younger kids will be in their own isolated areas of the portable classrooms, and will only go into the school for lunch and gym.

For eighth-graders, it's an early taste of what high school will be like next year.

Howard said it's a balance between managing the resources and needs of the displaced students and the high-school students who have to share what they have.

"We need to get to a point where we are back to normal so to speak in terms of providing a good education for our students: making kids feel safe, making parents confident in sending their kids here every single day," Howard said. "So what we're talking about is what does that new normal look like, and how are we going to get there?"

The district will let teachers in over the weekend so they can set up their classrooms. School begins on Jan. 7.

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