Like many of the students who have grown up in Turnagain in the last half-century, Anessa Feero, a senior at West High School, has spent the past six years on the same 44 acres the high school shares with  Romig Middle School—from seventh to twelfth grade. She will graduate this spring and head off to college in Washington. Feero is proud of the legacy she leaves behind. She was instrumental in forming the Cultures United club, which seeks to promote inclusion and honor the diversity of the school. She also has been active in tutoring and mentoring her fellow students.

From the time she was a middle-schooler at Romig, the library that connects Romig to West was a refuge.

"I used to go there every single day in eighth grade. I used to work on my homework there," Feero said. It also gave her a glimpse into her future as a high school student.

West and Romig are unique among the many buildings which make up the Anchorage School District. They're the only traditional high school and middle school to share a campus. They also share a long history in Turnagain. West, opened in 1953 as Anchorage High School and is the oldest of Anchorage's major high schools. Romig opened soon after, in 1963. The two buildings are connected by a hallway and share a library, now known as the Instructional Media Center (IMC). Both schools are survivors.

West High School senior Anessa Feero.
West High School senior Anessa Feero.

Forces of Nature

During the Good Friday Earthquake on March 27, 1964—the second-largest earthquake ever recorded—Anchorage structures were tested. West suffered extensive damage. The quake, which lasted nearly five minutes, destroyed most of the second floor. Thankfully, no students were in the building at 5:36 p.m. when the earth began shaking.

Decades later, on January 24, 2016, Anchorage school structures were tested again. No students were in the building that Sunday, but damage from the 7.1 earthquake closed the West-Romig IMC for several weeks while a crew cleared debris and made emergency repairs.

Anchorage School District's Chief Operating Officer, Tom Roth, explained that in an earthquake, West tends to move one way while Romig moves another. The IMC is in the middle of two buildings which puts the area seismically at risk.

The temporary fix for the IMC—removing the acoustic ceiling tiles after many fell during the 2016 earthquake—has resulted in a usable space for students, but questions remain.

Tectonic plate movement will always pose a threat to buildings in Anchorage. But much can be done to improve building safety and ensure they withstand the next big quake.

Damage to West High School and Romig Middle School’s Instructional Media Center (IMC) after a 7.1 earthquake hit Southcentral in January 2016.
Damage to West High School and Romig Middle School’s Instructional Media Center (IMC) after a 7.1 earthquake hit Southcentral in January 2016.

At West, a new roof and structural and seismic improvements have been classified as ASD Priority I projects. These are requirements which address life safety, security, legal compliance, repair of a damaged or deteriorating facility to prevent complete loss of the facility, avoid high-cost emergency repairs and capitalize on rapid energy savings, according to the district's Capital Planning and Construction's report on Facility Sustainment Needs. All of the district's Priority I projects were placed on this year's school bond proposal.

When Feero goes to the library during her fourth hour, she can't help but notice the missing tiles. She says the acoustics have changed making it difficult to work in small groups, study quietly or pay attention during presentations.

"It's like a constant reminder that things aren't the same," she said and adds, students have been advised to evacuate from the library in the event of the next earthquake, rather than trying to duck, cover and hold.

Community Assets

Anchorage began building schools more than 60 years ago. As the city grew, and the population expanded, so did the need for schools. Today, there are more than 90 ASD school facilities stretching from Girdwood to Mirror Lake. To maintain the buildings—worth more than $2 billion—the district spends approximately $5 million annually on preventive maintenance, planned major maintenance and unscheduled building maintenance (fixing things that break). ASD hasn't built a new school from the ground up since Clark Middle School opened in 2009. The youngest elementary schools, Muldoon and Trailside, were built 17 years ago, in 2000. Maintaining and renewing the facilities which serve nearly 50,000 students each year is a district priority in order to keep students and staff safe.

"Facilities age and must be maintainedwe either pay some now or pay more later," said Valerie Buckendorf, founding member of Great Alaska Schools.  "It's important for citizens to recognize the many benefits of maintaining our schools so that Anchorage continues to provide the best quality experiences for its students and all who enter the schools' doors."

In Anchorage, you don't have to look far to find ASD alumni. West's notable graduates include politicians, professional athletes, the first Alaskan to win an Olympic gold medal, Kris Thorsness, and even an astronaut, Bill Oefelein. Current Anchorage School Board president, Tam Agosti-Gisler, is a proud graduate of West and a 1964 earthquake survivor.

When the 1964 earthquake struck, it was a school holiday. Agosti-Gisler was watching cartoons at home along with three of her siblings. Her mother was able to get everyone safely out of the house and into the family station wagon. Agosti-Gisler recalls feeling as though she was on a trampoline.

West High School graduate and current Anchorage School District School Board president, Tam Agosti-Gisler.
West High School graduate and current Anchorage School District School Board president, Tam Agosti-Gisler.

Like many homes in the Turnagain area, the 9.2 shaker caused many of their personal possessions to break and cracked her family home's foundation. In a letter to family after the earthquake, her mother, Dona Agosti, said they were "very, very lucky people. Agosti-Gisler's parents were later able to secure a home loan to contract for repairs. The family continued living in the area where Agosti-Gisler and her siblings attended the neighborhood schools; Turnagain Elementary, Romig Middle and West High schools.

"Education was valued highly in the Agosti Family, so it's no accident that all seven children graduated from West High and then earned university degrees," Agosti-Gisler wrote about her family's experience with Turnagain-area schools in "Growing Up Anchorage."

"Public schools are microcosms of our incredibly diverse community. They are one of the few places where people from all walks of life gather to live, work and play. West and Romig have been hubs of activity for Anchorage since they were first built," said Buckendorf.

The Next Generation

While the West and Romig buildings haven't changed much over the years, the work inside is shifting to keep up with the 21 Century.  In March 2016, West opened its new Career and Technical Education Wing, which gave Feero the opportunity to take a course in Emergency Trauma through the Med Tech Program.

Feero's cousins will follow in her footsteps. She says she hopes they will use the resources and programs at West to the best of their abilities. When she imagines the future of the school for her grandchildren, she smiles and says she thinks there will be a lot more orange, West's official color.

Even if she doesn't recognize her old classrooms or her study spot in the library, she's still optimistic about West's future, and her own.

She hopes one day to be added to the list of notable West graduates from the last 64 years, known for her volunteerism. "I just want my voice to have an impact now that lasts," she said. "Even if they don't know that it was my contribution, they'll feel the effects of it."

 

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with the Anchorage School District. Contact the creative services editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.