KNIK -- A new school named for Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race co-founder Joe Redington Sr. is part of a boom in Mat-Su school construction to accommodate the region's burgeoning population.
The $65 million campus of Joe Redington Sr. Junior/Senior High School is just off Knick Knack Mud Shack Road in the growing Knik-Fairview area, which would be populous enough to qualify as Alaska's fifth-largest city if incorporated.
The nearly 95,000-square-foot school opened this week with about 470 students from grades 6 through 10. Grades 11 and 12 will be added in the next two years.
The memory of the school's namesake, often called the father of the Iditarod, played a major role in an opening ceremony Thursday. Calls of "Go Redington Huskies!" punctuated the ceremony. Principal Tom Lytle noted the "bookend sleds" hanging in the library, one from the first year Redington ran the Iditarod (1974) and the last (1997, at the age of 80).
"I want to thank you. I want to thank your whole family," Lytle told Joe Redington's daughter-in-law Barbara Redington, who represented the family at Thursday's opening and received a spontaneous standing ovation.
After the speeches ended, Redington visited with Mat-Su Assembly member and Iditarod finisher Vern Halter and race stalwart Greg Bill. She talked about the lessons she hoped her father-in-law's legacy provided.
"There's many paths and trails to take," she said. "I hope they all discover in school that school is not a race. They shouldn't worry about being better than anyone. They should be the best they can be."
Redington praised the district's decision to use online voting to select the school's name, calling the selection "a wonderful tribute" to Joe Redington and his wife, Vi. Their son, Raymie, spent Thursday running sled dog tours at the Iditarod headquarters a few miles down the road.
There are no Redingtons at the school yet, but there might be soon: Two elementary-age family members and an 11-month-old are coming up through the ranks.
The school features a career and technical education focus, with offerings that include construction, welding, and small engine repair. It also offers conventional courses as well as art, music, physical education and sports teams, including football.
School colors for the Redington Huskies are blue and "spirit green," Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District Superintendent Deena Paramo told the crowd. The colors were selected by a vote the year the same-colored Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl.
Redington, with its emphasis on career and tech education, opens as the Mat-Su district is pushing for new innovation in education, Paramo said.
"This is the new beginning for Mat-Su schools," she said.
The school's opening caps a frenzy of Valley school construction projects aimed at keeping pace with a population that's grown 10 percent in the past four years, almost three times the state average.
There are nearly 100,000 Mat-Su residents now -- more than 97,800 in 2014, according to the U.S. census. The school district has grown by an average of 4,000 students every decade from 1980 through 2010, according to fall enrollment counts provided by district spokeswoman Catherine Esary.
Mat-Su voters in 2011 approved a $214 million, five-year plan for building five new schools, plus an addition at Mat-Su Career & Technical High School and upgrades to many other district facilities, according to Esary. The state paid 70 percent and borough taxpayers the remaining 30 percent.
The new or renovated schools include:
• Mat-Su Day School, a "special-mission" school that serves students with behavioral challenges and opened last year near Wasilla.
• Valley Pathways, an alternative middle and high school formerly housed in modulars that opened in a new building last year near Palmer.
• Career & Technical High School near Wasilla, which added three new "career learning pathways" this year in natural resources, human resources, and transportation.
• Iditarod Elementary, a new replacement school for the current one in Wasilla that's scheduled to open next fall.
• Dena'ina Elementary School, a new feeder school for Redington scheduled to open next fall.
Other school improvements in the district include $12 million in athletic complexes, a $2.2 million renovation at Big Lake Elementary School, a new, $1 million roof for Trapper Creek Elementary School and a $1.3 million roof for Willow Elementary School.
The Mat-Su Assembly also approved the acceptance of a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to pay for a new $6.9 million building for Fronteras, a Spanish immersion charter school currently operating at a gravel pit between Palmer and Wasilla. The school will hold a groundbreaking ceremony at the new site near Wasilla on Monday.