'We were able to stay together:' Gruening staff grateful for Chugiak's help
Most Anchorage schools are back to normal after Southcentral Alaska's massive Nov. 30 earthquake – but an Eagle River school's staff is thanking a sister facility for continuing to offer their students a place to learn.
Days after the 7.0 quake, faculty at the severely damaged Gruening Middle School weren't sure where their classes would next be held.
"Initially we though we would have to be divided up amongst other middle-school campuses," said Gruening Principal Bobby Jefts.
Jefts met with Allison Susel, Chugiak High's acting principal during and after the earthquake while regular principal Megan Hatswell was on maternity leave.
"We mapped out together: Did Chugiak have enough teaching spaces available for 600 students?" Jefts said. "And it turned out they did."
Chugiak High, which has a maximum student capacity of about 1,700 students, was at about 60 percent capacity when the 7.0 quake struck. Although the school had the room, its faculty had to make sure damage that left Chugiak High's auditorium closed and affected its auxiliary gym wouldn't interfere.
"First we had to make sure our building was safe," Susel said.
Susel credited work by the Anchorage School District's maintenance and operations staff with making the move possible.
"We had to evaluate all of our areas and teaching spaces," Susel said. "They worked extremely hard, days and nights to help get us ready. We were excited to hear we would be able to open on time and we did have the space to accommodate another whole school."
On Dec. 4, the Tuesday after the quake hit on a Friday, Gruening's principal and vice principal met with Chugiak High staff. Six days later, Gruening's entire student body showed up at Chugiak.
Hatswell remembers a meeting with Chugiak faculty as a key turning point.
"Once the information was presented, the staff stood and cheered to have a full school again and to welcome a school that had lost theirs," Hatswell said.
Years ago, Hatswell said, Gruening was a feeder school for Chugiak High. Although most Gruening students now move on to Eagle River High School instead, their mascot still coincides with Chugiak's: Gruening's sports teams are the Colts, while Chugiak's are the Mustangs.
"So for a lot of old-timers, this is the way it was, and now we're going back to the way it was," Hatswell said. "Everyone did a fantastic job and I am very optimistic we will be able to give the best to all of the students."
"I'm just glad we were able to stay together," Jefts said.
Damage from the Nov. 30 quake and its aftershocks has left Gruening unusable through at least the next school year. In the meantime, Gruening students will continue to attend Chugiak High.
As a way to say welcome, Chugiak sophomores were moved from their wing of the school and also surrendered their lockers to incoming Gruening students.
"Each of the students got a locker," Jefts said. "All 600 of them, which is a pretty big deal if you're a middle schooler."
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