In East Anchorage, families and neighbors reckon with the potential closure of a beloved elementary school

Nunaka Valley Elementary is among six schools that the Anchorage School District has recommended for closure amid a $68 million budget deficit.

ASD, Anchorage School District, Carla Jenner, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary, school

Talk to a Nunaka Valley resident, and they might mention what it’s like to see all the elementary schoolers walk to school in this East Anchorage neighborhood each morning. They might talk about the neighborhood’s parks, the access to the local trail system, the area’s walkability or how the neighborhood is growing as young families continue moving in.

And residents have said, repeatedly in recent interviews, that so much of Nunaka Valley’s sense of connection is centered around the local public elementary school.

That school, Nunaka Valley Elementary, is among six schools the district has recommended for closure amid a $68 million budget deficit.

Residents all over Anchorage are reckoning with the possibility that a school like Nunaka Valley Elementary may close in their neighborhood. Families are attempting to determine where their kids will attend school the following year. Teachers remain unclear on where they’ll find themselves come fall.

‘It is this neighborhood.’

It was a frenetic morning in Carla Jenner’s kindergarten class on a Monday in late October, shortly after the school closure recommendations were announced. A wave of students had just arrived. They unzipped snow pants, ripped off beanies, hung up backpacks, stowed lunch boxes and reached up for one final hug from a parent or a good morning hug for Jenner.

ASD, Anchorage School District, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary, iPad, iReady, school
ASD, Anchorage School District, Carla Jenner, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary, school
ASD, Anchorage School District, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary, school

The tiny students swiftly settled into their morning routine, chattering away as they found their seats at equally small chairs and circle tables set up around the classroom. Some stopped to pick up cereal and apple sauce from a cart at the front of the class — Nunaka Valley is a Title I school, which means there are a high number of students from lower-income families, and the school participates in a federal program that provides free lunch and breakfasts to all students — while others grabbed a colored pencil from a plastic bin to begin work on the day’s coloring activity.

Jenner is Nunaka Valley’s kindergarten teacher. It’s her 23rd year at the school.

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“The thing that I think about Nunaka Valley is that it is this neighborhood,” Jenner said. “It’s like all of these kids live and play together in this little neighborhood, and this is where they all come together.”

When she thinks about the school going away, Jenner said, she thinks about the disappearance of the neighborhood’s hub.

ASD, Anchorage School District, Bob Hancock, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary, school

“Taking these children out of their neighborhood and putting them into another neighborhood or another school in another neighborhood, I think, would be devastating,” Jenner said.

Jenner knows almost all of the school’s students since most have been there since spending a year in her kindergarten class. Former students tell her about becoming Eagle Scouts, and parents write to her on Facebook about students who are now off to college or having a baby.

While the school has been shrinking over the years, the extra classrooms have filled with preschool students, Jenner said. Staff didn’t see the closure recommendation coming.

“And it was hard,” Jenner said. “It was like, almost like a death.”

Nunaka Valley Elementary
Nunaka Valley Elementary

Nunaka Valley Elementary was built in 1958 — which makes people assume it’s permanent, said Tim Blake, the school’s principal. It’s a shock to see the school’s name on the list.

“I’d love to see Nunaka Valley stay open for another 60 years,” Blake said. “But whether or not that’s practical? We’ll find out.”

Staff and families bought homes in the neighborhood, anticipating their students would attend the school, he said.

“It’s one of the oldest communities in Anchorage, and it’s seen a rejuvenation of sorts in the last decade or so where we’ve got younger families moving in,” Blake said. “We’re seeing third generations of students come through, so that’s a really unique part of our school is that we’ve got the legacy here.”

There are 151 students between kindergarten and fifth grade and another 70 to 80 preschool students at the school.

Closure recommendations land in election season

The school closure recommendations came in October of an election year, and bounced the issue of funding for public education straight into the middle of a heated election cycle. Candidates like independent former Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former state Rep. Les Gara are now hammering the issue in campaign ads, and showing up to meetings on the issue.

The district’s announcement of the recommended school closures to families was pointed: “When our state government doesn’t increase education funding, it’s cutting education funding. An influx of federal COVID-19 relief dollars provided a false sense of security. The reality is our schools are being underfunded and it was never addressed by our state government,” wrote superintendent Jharrett Bryantt, referencing the per-student funding allocation from the state that’s remained largely flat since 2017, a key reason for the current budget deficit and spending cuts, administrators say.

All but one of the schools recommended for closure are Title I schools, which has raised questions and concerns across the community. The district has said it’s focused on schools that are smaller and have lower capacities as enrollment district-wide has continued to shrink. Officials have warned additional closure recommendations could occur in the future.

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The district has yet to finalize the closure decisions — that’s up to the school board to decide by Dec. 20.

Between the mid-October recommendation announcements and late December, the district is conducting town halls at the schools with district officials and a consultant hired by the district to assist with the process.

Birchwood Elementary Town Hall

In addition to Nunaka Valley Elementary, the schools the district has recommended for closure are: Abbott Loop Elementary; Birchwood ABC Elementary; Klatt Elementary; Northwood Elementary; and Wonder Park Elementary.

On Thursday evening, members of the Birchwood ABC school community voiced their concerns and asked questions of school officials in the first such town hall.

One parent asked what exactly the district was there to listen to: “What would change your mind?”

Neighbors step in and step up

After the news of Nunaka Valley’s recommended closure rippled through the neighborhood, residents started organizing.

Laura McNown is originally from Germany, and she moved to the neighborhood four years ago. She recently received a degree in special education and now teaches preschool at Nunaka Valley. When she heard the news about the school’s potential closure, McNown said she sat in her classroom and cried. She has two young kids and had envisioned them starting school there.

The news didn’t feel right, she said.

“It shouldn’t be that easy of a process to close a public school,” McNown said.

Cafecito Bonito, Laura McNown, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary

McNown reached out to her neighbor, Kristi Wood, asking what she could do. Wood has experience in community work and enjoys grassroots advocacy, she said.

Community members eventually met multiple times at Cafecito Bonito, a nearby coffee shop, to discuss their options and strategize as part of a weekly community coffee chat hosted by state House candidate Donna Mears. They were joined by several local progressive candidates running for office in the area, like George Martinez, who is running for city Assembly, Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, a candidate for state Senate, and Andrew Gray, a state House candidate, who offered advice.

At the neighborhood level, Nunaka Valley Elementary advocates have talking points, a Facebook page, a website and yard signs. They are door-knocking, going to town halls and work sessions, and providing public testimony.

“It’s a little bit of a scattershot approach,” Wood said. “Because we’re basically just doing anything and everything we can to try to get the word out, and communicate to neighbors and communicate all of our concerns back to the school board and the superintendent and all our elected officials.”

Joel Potter, who chairs the University of Alaska Anchorage’s philosophy department, has launched into advocating for Nunaka Valley as a neighbor who lives across the street.

“I’m generally a person who’s very interested in good deliberative processes, especially about education,” Potter said. “So I completely recognize that the source of the problem is underfunding, so I think there has to be a political solution, but regardless of what happens there, I want to encourage there to be a good decision-making process,” he said.

He wants people to be aware of the history of the district’s budget shortfall and the legislative options to fix it, but he also wants people to be equipped to ask about the district’s rationale for solving the deficit.

Potter said he’s concerned about the hiring of a consultant who specializes in consolidation. He saw the same thing play out as the University of Alaska system tried to deal with statewide budget cuts three years ago.

“It’s not like an open-ended inquiry,” Potter said. “It’s where you’re looking for someone to reinforce the position you already have.”

‘This is our forever home’

On Tuesday morning, Rosie Anderson was looking straight at the school behind her backyard as she talked about coming up to Alaska with her husband, who died seven years ago and attended the school in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“When I was working from home for two years during COVID, I watched it every day, families, they bring their kids to school every morning, they pick them up in the afternoon,” Anderson said. “I mean, it’s just like it should be, really. And so it’s really important for me to keep the school alive.”

David Smith and Anna Steinmann, along with their 4-year-old daughter Olivia, moved to the Nunaka Valley neighborhood last year after living in Steinmann’s home country of Switzerland for five years. Smith grew up sledding at Moose Hill behind the school and playing baseball at Nunaka Valley.

Cafecito Bonito, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary

Steinmann didn’t know Alaska that well, but she said she wanted to move to a walkable neighborhood with a school nearby, a bike trail and a lake for ice skating. She did her research and said Nunaka checked all the boxes. They moved in January and have since enrolled Olivia in preschool at the school.

“I have this Swiss way of thinking about school, and everything is public, everything is free, everybody walks to school, the kids walk alone,” Steinmann said. “And I wanted this and this is the one area where I felt that it’s possible. And we do it, we walk every day.”

But now, Smith said the family is scrambling over where to send Olivia next year after the announcement of the recommended closure. The other school options are farther away and much less walkable. Smith said he’s shocked driving past schools during pick-up times and seeing all the cars lined up.

“I’m like, ‘That’s miserable, I am so glad I don’t have to do that,’” he said. “But now we’re like, ‘Oh, no, we might have to do that.’”

Since the announcement, Steinmann and Smith have painted and hung a giant sign over Northern Lights Boulevard that reads “Save Our Neighborhood Schools.” They put up yard signs and gave one to a neighbor, and are talking to other parents at the school to let them know about upcoming meetings and where to find more information and to vote.

“I’m new to the U.S. politics system,” Steinmann said. “So this is diving right in.”

But really, Steinmann said, they’re just concerned parents.

The neighbors are worried about what becomes of the building and how it might affect property values. Right now, under the district’s proposed plan, the school would turn into a preschool academy, which Steinmann said would be all right for the neighborhood, but still leave them searching for kindergarten options.

Dorothy McCauley, whose kids are in first and third grades at Nunaka Valley Elementary, had long wanted to live in the neighborhood. Before finding a home there, she’d imagined living in Nunaka Valley, thinking about how her kids would play at the park and go to the school, and maybe one day, if she was lucky, her grandkids would too.

“I would just walk through the neighborhood thinking about like, ‘I’m gonna get one of those houses one day,’ ” she said. “And I did.”

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She and her husband, who went to the school himself as an elementary student, bought an older house in the neighborhood and are working to fix it up. It’s their dream, and they plan to stay, she said.

“This is our forever home,” McCauley said. “This isn’t like, you know, our starter home, and then we’re going to move up or something.”

The school is “the heart of the community,” she said, and it makes the neighborhood a friendly place, with neighbors saying hi to one another and watching students on their way to school.

ASD, Anchorage School District, Carla Jenner, Nunaka Valley, Nunaka Valley Elementary, school

But now, the fate of the school is uncertain. The plan presented by the district would split the school — sending half of the kids to Chester Valley Elementary and half to Russian Jack Elementary. McCauley said her son has been friends with some of the other students since kindergarten. There’s been a lot of consistency.

“My kids feel like they can talk to any of the grown-ups there,” she said.

It’s an emotionally positive place where everyone is encouraged to be friends with one another, to treat others well, she said.

“Just losing that,” McCauley said, “to just be less personalization, I think it’s just bad.”

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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.