In the entryway of Anchorage’s Alaska Native Cultural Charter School on a recent Friday morning, students whizzed past on floor scooters during their gym period while teachers sat cloistered in makeshift cubicles and another group of students streamed past toward recess.
The foyer, located in a hallway on the second floor of Bettye Davis East High, offers an immediate glimpse into what staff, students and supporters say is a less-than-ideal learning environment for the charter school.
The school community is raising money in hopes of one day building a space of its own. Until then, some supporters are asking the Anchorage School District to consider allowing the charter school to use a district elementary school building recently slated for closure. Like all charter schools in the district, the cultural school is responsible for finding its own building space — and that’s proved challenging over the last few years.
The school’s previous building, on Bragaw Street, became unusable during the COVID-19 pandemic when the district had to comply with certain ventilation standards that the building lacked. So the district assisted with moving the charter school into the high school in early 2021, when in-person school started back up after a period of remote learning.
Founded in 2007, the school is the district’s only Title I charter school, which means a majority of students come from low-income backgrounds. The curriculum incorporates Alaska Native values, including respect for elders, self-sufficiency, knowledge of language, compassion, dignity and humility.
A math class, for example, might involve building various clay kayak shapes, said math teacher Danielle Riha. She said the school usually teaches subsistence practices, like cutting seal and moose. But there’s no way the school can do that now without a kitchen or sinks in classrooms, Riha said. They also can’t drum or dance, since it’s disruptive to the rest of the high school.
“It definitely does affect our culture,” Riha said.
The school’s leaders fear its current situation is affecting enrollment. The student population has dropped by as many as 100 students while located at the high school, from a height of 300 students at their old location on Bragaw, said Manny Acuna, the president of the Academic Policy Committee, the school’s governing board.
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“While we’re very thankful to the school district for finding us a temporary place to go, it’s just not conducive to our environment, to our cultural mission. It’s destroying it,” Acuna said.
Acuna said the loss of students takes a toll on the school’s budget, and that he knows some families will return once the school finds its own place.
Abbott Loop Elementary seen as a potential building
One current option might be Abbott Loop Elementary. The district had initially recommended the closure of six elementary schools that had low student numbers amid a budget crisis, but school board members ultimately approved only closing one.
Families in the Abbott Loop community have expressed concern over the school’s closure, and what it might mean for the majority of students who rely on certain services and free meals at their school.
Acuna said the charter school is looking at its options, but it’s tough to find facilities that suit the school’s needs and would require a lot of money for repurposing, which is why Acuna said Abbott Loop is the best option.
“It’s already a school, and it is technically move-in ready and safe for us,” he said.
When a school district has excess building capacity, they can offer it to charter schools, but aren’t required to under state statute, said Jim Anderson, the district’s chief operating officer.
“When a charter school gets a charter approved with the school board, they do it knowing that they’re responsible for finding a facility,” Anderson said.
However, as the district began looking at elementary school closures earlier in the school year, Anderson said it made to sense to see if a vacant building would be acceptable for the cultural charter school.
“As soon as we realized that we were going to recommend closing facilities this year, we knew ANCCS was at the top of the list to recommend a repurpose, because they’re on the second floor of East High School and it’s not optimal,” Anderson said.
District officials had initially recommended Wonder Park Elementary’s building as a place for the charter school to move, but board members ultimately opted to keep that elementary school open in December.
So now, the only vacant building in the district would be Abbott Loop, which means it’s currently the only option. The move to Abbott Loop would likely be temporary while the school continues to fundraise for its own building in the long term.
Board president Margo Bellamy said she is highly focused on the families and students of Abbott Loop and their transition to other schools, which she said will be both tough and emotional. Bellamy said her vote to close Abbott Loop was influenced by the school’s low enrollment and potential for more student success at a larger school, as well as the expensive repairs the building needed.
She said moving the Native charter school to East was always meant to be temporary and that renovations to the Abbott Loop building, if the charter school were to move in, shouldn’t be a district expense. Bellamy also said she wanted to make sure the school didn’t end up in the same situation that it did in its previous location.
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Board member Carl Jacobs said the elementary school’s closure presents a unique opportunity for the board to help support the charter school in the short term while the cultural school pursues a long-term goal of building its own space.
“I think that if we can avoid a demolition, if there’s a viable use for the building, at least in the short term, that’s a conversation that’s worth having,” Jacobs said.
‘We just have to make it work’
It’s cramped inside the charter school right now.
A cultural teacher, an English language learning teacher and a speech teacher use hallway space and portable dividers as offices in the school. One teacher props up an umbrella to keep the balls students play with from bouncing into her during gym class, said principal Sheila Sweetsir.
Sometimes there are three or four staff members working at nearby library shelves in the entryway because they don’t have a space to work, Sweetsir said. Teachers warm their food up in Sweetsir’s office and then sit at a table near the entrance to the school. There’s no real private space for staff.
“We just have to make it work,” Sweetsir said.
East High principal Ron Brown said the elementary school in their building has had minimal impact — the high school had to stop using 12 classrooms, “which means that our teachers and students are a little bit more cramped up here, if you will, but we do operate on two different schedules so we rarely see each other.”
The high school assigned a liaison to work and communicate with the charter school, which has worked out well, he said.
Elizabeth Hancock — who said she was speaking as a parent and founding Academic Policy Committee member, and who also works as an English language arts teacher at the school — said some families left the school because of safety concerns, from the busy parking lot to being exposed to high school students.
“It’s just a completely different population,” Hancock said. “It’s a completely different lifestyle because the age difference is so great between the elementary kids and the high school kids.”
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Those who stayed do so because the education the school offers is unavailable elsewhere in Anchorage, Hancock said.
“That cultural piece that is always missing from neighborhood schools is what our charter is geared for,” Hancock said. “That cultural piece that we can give our families and our students outweighs the fact that ANCCS is located in a high school. Families are willing to make that sacrifice because the mission of our school is that important to Native families.”
Hancock’s son, Matthew, a third grader at the school, said the school’s playground doesn’t have the usual trappings. It’s now located in a courtyard outside of East, without a jungle gym or swings. There isn’t anything to climb on, Matthew said. Their old school used to have a spider-web-style rope to climb on, and a pole for sliding down.
Students also have to eat in their classrooms since the charter school lacks a lunchroom.
Even with the disappointing environment at East, Michael Patterson said his first grade son has grown a lot at the school.
“Even the lack of buildings, the lack of space, physical space, just with the tools and the space that the staff have been given, I think they have done a phenomenal job,” Patterson said.
But even with his son doing well, Patterson emphasized the need for a building.
“We really value the school’s mission, and I want to make sure, as a parent, that staff and students are given the proper tools and have the appropriate building to really unleash that mission,” he said.
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