Rebuilding is underway for the new Kaktovik school — a project that residents have been anticipating for the past three years.
After the old Harold Kaveolook School was destroyed by fire in the winter of 2020, the interim school opened in September 2020. But Kaktovik students and residents have been eager for the construction of the new school that will have a gym, more classroom space and a swimming pool, said Steve Cropsey, director of maintenance and operations with the North Slope Borough School District.
The principal of Harold Kaveolook School John Riddle said that “the community members have been very frustrated with how long it has taken to get this project underway, but they’re also very excited about the new build.”
The construction of the new school is split into three stages, with the first phase focusing on the gym, phase two — on education spaces and phase three — on the pool. The whole building is expected to be completed around 2028, but the first phase including the gym should be done as soon as the fall of 2025, Cropsey said.
In mid-July, the school district’s contractor UIC Construction started cleaning up the ground for the future school.
The gym: a place to play and gather
Since the fire, the students have been studying in the interim school which offers temporary classrooms and a weight room.
While Cropsey said the classrooms in the interim facility are acceptable for studying, Carey Halnier, a counselor at the school and a former volleyball team coach said that it is located in several interconnected mobile units, which are not designed like auditoriums.
“Makeshift man camp is, you know, it’s a little demoralizing,” she said. “Not that this isn’t a nice building and everybody’s very grateful, but it’s not a school.”
But the main issue of the interim facility is that it doesn’t have a gym, Riddle said.
“It’s been way, way too long that these kids have been without an area to be able to do just fundamental exercise. They haven’t had a place to practice volleyball or basketball. Really, they don’t even have an appropriate place to have physical education classes. And it’s really taken a toll on these kids,” Riddle said. “For most of their high school career not having a space like that, quite frankly, it’s been traumatic.”
Besides a space for students to practice sports, without a gym, the community also doesn’t have a place to gather for celebrations and events, Halnier said.
“We lack a meeting space,” Halnier said. “It’s real important because it’s the center of the community and the community uses it and they connect there.”
While the North Slope Borough started on a temporary gym construction last year, Halnier said the building has not been completed.
The new gym construction is expected to start in the spring of 2024 and to be completed as early as the fall of 2025, Cropsey said. The construction during that phase is estimated to cost the borough about $34 million.
The new gym will have more windows and seating than the one before — improvements architects planned in response to residents’ feedback, said Joanna Burke Croft, principal architect at Anchorage-based firm Burkhart Croft Architects, in charge of the Kaktovik school design.
In a two-story building, students will have a game space on the bottom floor and a running track on the top floor — another feature “that the community really wanted,” Cropsey said.
Students will also have “a place to play” on the second floor, “both to support motor development in small children but also to have a place for parents to supervise children during a community event or a sporting event,” said Gavin Wells, architect at Burkhart Croft Architects.
Shared spaces: the heart of the school
In phase two, construction will focus on the education and administration wing of the building. This part of the facility will have classrooms, as well as common areas in the center — a cafeteria with built-in seating booths, a library and the Iñupiaq room.
Students at all levels will have easy access to the library and other common areas in the middle, as will visitors attending games and events in the gym.
“We really do have one large gathering area in the center of the school that all the nighttime activities can sort of pinwheel around,” Croft said.
While the new school will have a similar number of classrooms as the school before, the rooms will be sized a little larger, Croft said. Additionally, a covered play deck will be attached to the western side of the building and will be designed to be converted into classrooms in the future, Wells said.
Overall, in the old facility, various elements were added to the facility over decades.
“The old school was kind of a Frankenstein of buildings,” Halnier said. “It was kind of meandering and a lot of wasted space, and maybe not as well designed.”
Instead, the new building will be entirely new, with a coherent plan to use the space efficiently, Wells said.
The previous school, beloved by the Kaktovik community of about 300, was consumed by fire ignited by a heater placed on the ground in an attempt to thaw the frozen pipes, Cropsey said. Frozen pipes also prevented the activation of the sprinkler system.
The construction of the new school comes with multiple fire precautions, such as an automatic sprinkler system, thermal barriers between any installation and fire separations — compartments intended to slow the spread of smoke and fire during an emergency.
To minimize freeze-ups, the bathrooms and other areas with a lot of water will be located in the center of the building, Croft said.
The drains in the soffit of the new building will be consolidated in the Arctic pipeline, designed for the extreme cold, to ensure that the drainage remains flowing and is serviceable, Wells said.
To prepare for the upcoming school construction, the first step is soil cleanup.
The school district’s contractor, UIC Construction, started to remediate the soil in the middle of July and plans to complete the step in October, UIC Construction General Manager Robbie Lynn said.
Lynn explained that when the old school burned down, it contaminated the ground with lead paint and gasoline residue from heating the old building.
The crew of seven people, four of them hired locally, started to remove contaminated soil before they haul it out to Oxbow landfill in Prudhoe Bay.
“This is the first time that ‘ahead of schedule’ and this project are used in the same sentence,” Cropsey said.
After soil remediation, the UIC Construction crew will install a liner in the zone where the contaminated material was excavated and backfill the soil with clean gravel, said UIC Construction Project Manager James Ashton, who is leading the work. Then in mid-Februray, they will start installing steel helical piles for stabilization of the future gymnasium, Ashton said.
While Cropsey said the cleanup is ahead of schedule, some residents are still concerned the project won’t be completed on time — including Halnier.
“It’s a little disheartening, I’m not gonna lie, that they’re still not really in any construction phase. They’re actually just in the cleanup phase,” Halnier said. “We’re, you know, done with summer.”
When the gym construction is complete, the community will be able to use it right away ― and throughout the next phases of construction, Cropsey said.
“Once this is open, it’s going to be our goal to not have to close it again,” Cropsey said. “The kids have suffered long enough without a gym.”
Another year without a gym
For now, the students are looking at another season without a gym or gathering space, Halnier said.
She said that at least four students on local volleyball and basketball teams left the village, searching for schools that offer better sports opportunities.
“We’ve lost students to outside schools because there is no community place, there’s no gym, there’s no pool, there’s no place for us to gather,” she said.
Riddle said he is not aware of anybody who left the school because of the gym, but he agreed that the lack of a sports facilities is detrimental to students’ experience.
Still, the school plans to have two basketball teams, a volleyball team and even a ski team this year, Riddle said.
“I’ve been a principal for over 20 years and the kids are awesome everywhere, but there’s something very, very special about these kids here,” he said. “Despite the hardships, they still tend to care for each other and do everything they can do to keep moving on.”