News of Wasilla teacher's death spreads rapidly

February 25, 2008 

WASILLA - News that Jennifer Van Ausdal, a "complete educator" at Wasilla High School, died early Sunday within hours had swept through the student body, faculty and staff via text messages and phone calls.

A team of counselors and school staff that met at the school Monday knew most of the campus had learned that an accident on the Parks Highway killed Van Ausdal and severely injured her two sons, Zackary, 11, and Timothy, 10.

A counselor was assigned to sit in Van Ausdal's classroom, where a substitute took over the lesson plan, to offer grief counseling to her students.

"I looked forward to going to class every day. She always had a smile on her face and I looked forward to being around her," said Skyler Nuss, a sophomore who had Van Ausdal for first period. "She told funny stories and had a great heart."

A spokeswoman for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District agreed Monday that grief would distract from learning at Wasilla High School.

"I think all of the student body, all of the staff are affected and would want time to reflect on that," said Catherine Esary, district public information officer.

The Alaska State Troopers reported that Van Ausdal's 2005 Subaru Forester was southbound at 8:04 p.m. Saturday when it crossed the center line at Mile 46 and collided head-on with a northbound Grand Cherokee and was then hit from behind by a Mercury Tracer.

Trooper Lt. David Tracy said Monday the accident is still under investigation and he did not know what might have caused Van Ausdal's car to cross the center line. The accident occurred on a straight stretch of road just south of an overpass above the Alaska Railroad, he said.

Life Flight flew Van Ausdal and her son Zack to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, while Tim was taken to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. Erin Kruse, 50, of Houston, the Cherokee driver, was also taken to Providence. The third driver, Gabriela Olide, 18, of Wasilla, was treated at Mat-Su Regional, according to troopers.

Van Ausdal died early Sunday morning of severe head trauma. A 1993 graduate of Wasilla High, she celebrated her 33rd birthday Thursday.

For the past three years, Van Ausdal taught biology, physical science and physics at the high school. Before that she taught at Houston High School for three years.

"She was a really nice lady, had a heart for kids," said Bill Johnson, assistant principal at Houston High. "She had a real passion for music and drama. She'll be missed."

Her popularity continued at Wasilla, according to Mark Okeson, assistant principal at Wasilla.

"She was a complete educator," he said. "She taught and cared well. That's a tough balance, but she orchestrated the balance between good care and good instructor. So it's a tough loss for us."

School counselors immediately put together a book of memories, intended for Van Ausdal's sons, to which students could contribute. By midmorning Monday, the book was already half-full with colorful pages of handwritten tributes, filled with loving thoughts and hope for her family.

Van Ausdal's husband, Dennis, taught across the hallway from his wife until last year, when he moved to Wasilla Middle School.

According to the school, Zack, a sixth-grader at Wasilla Middle School, suffered a broken leg and shattered face. Whether he received any permanent brain damage cannot be determined until next week, according to the school update. Zack is expected to be in the hospital at least one month.

His brother, Tim, a fourth-grader at Cottonwood Creek Elementary School, suffered a torn bowel from his seatbelt, bruising on his forehead and a gash on his chin. He is stabilized and has been awake at times. He may be moved from intensive care at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center to join Zack at Providence in the near future.

Counselors at Wasilla High School are working with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where the family worships, to coordinate meals. Okeson said cards for the family may be sent to the high school, where they will be delivered to the family.

Find Melodie Wright at mwright@adn.com or call her at 907-352-6721. Reporter S. J. Komarnitsky contributed to this report.

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