Before Anchorage School District makes the decision to close Nunaka Valley Elementary, we ask them to please walk a mile — or a mile and a half — in the shoes of the kids who go there.
At the last school board meeting, Anchorage School Board President Margo Bellamy said she is concerned about the uneven representation she is seeing as Anchorage residents advocate for their school programs. We too fear that the voices of families from our neighborhood and our Title 1 school are not being heard.
Nunaka Valley is a diverse neighborhood where lower-income, first-time homeowners can actually afford to buy a home. Families with no car or one car, ours included, choose this neighborhood because you can safely walk so many places, including to school.
At the town hall meeting on closing Nunaka Valley Elementary, the district’s consolidation consultant described travel plans for students who are currently bused to Nunaka Valley. What was this cost-cutting plan? For students to walk along the high-speed corridor of Northern Lights Boulevard to Russian Jack Elementary. Anyone who lives in this area of Anchorage immediately recognizes the dangers of that route, where the sidewalk is heaped with snow and ice chunks, there is no space or barrier between the sidewalk and traffic, and heavy traffic travels at 50 mph around icy curves.
We drive that stretch of road often and have seen cars lose control and run onto the sidewalk. One of us walked the route this week. We would never send our kids to school that way. The footing is slippery and uneven, and the traffic speeding by at close range is threatening. While the route is within the district range for walkers — 1.5 miles — it does not meet multiple national Safe Routes to School recommendations for distance, sidewalk quality and traffic level. The only other option is for students to walk through isolated areas of Russian Jack Springs Park, where bears, moose and illegal camps are frequently seen. This option also does not meet safe walking route criteria.
Not only would these routes to school be riskier and more difficult for Nunaka students, but evidence is lacking to show that closing this school is an effective long-term plan. After a few years, the district will actually lose money when the pre-consolidation funding they receive for Nunaka phases out. With a racially diverse population and homes affordable to young families, Nunaka Valley likely has a higher birth rate than the general Anchorage population, but the school district’s consultant made his closure recommendations without bothering to check which areas of the city were likely to grow due to birth rates.
At the last board meeting, immersion program advocates were told their programs would not be cut. Inlet View Elementary is set to get its new building. Charter schools will get better facilities as they move into closed schools. But the low-income kids in our neighborhood will have to walk farther in riskier conditions, in the dark and cold of winter, along dangerous main roads and wooded areas harboring wildlife and illegal activity.
The school district’s financial situation seems dire. But if, at the end of the day, the changes we’ve made to balance our budget serve wealthier students more than poor ones, we have not done our job.
Mary Krusen, Laura McNown, Rebekah Potter, and Kristi Wood are Nunaka Valley residents. Potter is an Anchorage School District paraprofessional and McNown is a preschool teacher at Nunaka Valley Elementary.
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