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‘It’s destroying our cultural mission’: Alaska Native charter school struggles after losing its building

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Alaska Native Cultural Charter School students spend their recess in an outdoor space between two Bettye Davis East High School buildings. They’ve been at the high school since 2021, when they left their own building due to a lack of airflow. (Photo by: Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

On the outside, Bettye Davis East High School looks like a typical high school. That is, until you notice much younger kids playing in a fenced-off portion of an outdoor area between two buildings.

These students go to the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, the district’s only Title I charter school. They’ve been at the high school building since returning to in-person learning in 2021.

“It’s a sidewalk and some patches of grass,” said fourth grade teacher Georgianna Starr. “There’s a shed out there and one tree, and a couple of basketball hoops. That’s it.”

Starr said students and staff are making do with what they have: no playground, no cafeteria and no multipurpose room.

“But sometimes you think to yourself, why? Why do we always have to make do with what we have? The whole idea of being resilient all the time, it gets really tiring,” she said.

The charter school’s move to the high school has been an unexpected by-product of the pandemic. When Anchorage schools prepared to return to in-person instruction in early 2021, the Anchorage School District inspected ventilation systems to make sure there was enough airflow. At the building the charter school was leasing, fresh air could only come in through the open front door or open classroom windows.

The owner of the building said he couldn’t afford repairs to the ventilation system. So the charter school held off on bringing students back for one more quarter while they looked for a new space. With the help of the district, they moved into an upstairs wing of East High during spring break. They signed an agreement with the high school to stay through the 2021-2022 school year, according to a district spokesperson.

“While this is considered a temporary situation for the ANCCS program, the District and [Bettye Davis East High School] staff remain dedicated to providing a safe, accommodating, and adequate learning environment for our ANCCS students until such time that a more permanent solution is available,” the district wrote in a statement.

In the meantime, the charter school is losing students — and their ability to create a culturally immersive environment.

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The Alaska Native Cultural Charter School’s temporary space lacks enough room for many of the cultural events they hosted at their old building. (Photo by: Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

“It’s destroying our cultural mission,” said Manny Acuna, president of the school’s Academic Policy Committee. That’s the group of staff, parents and community members who make major decisions for the school.

Acuna’s wife teaches kindergarten there, and their kids have attended the school since 2008. He said moving into the high school has negatively impacted students, many of whom come from villages and aren’t accustomed to big public schools.

“Our student enrollment numbers have dropped drastically since, and for good reason,” he said. “Many parents, if they have kindergarteners or first graders, don’t want them to be immersed with high school students.”

He said enrollment has dropped from 300 students to around 200. That impacts their finances, because they receive state funding based on enrollment numbers.

Charter schools pay to lease their own facilities, while the Anchorage School District owns neighborhood school buildings. But the district has helped charter schools with facility costs in the past. In 2014, the school board voted to loan the German immersion charter school Rilke Schule $2 million to lease a new facility. They also set up a $1 million charter school facility fund so other charter schools could request similar loans. That fund sunset in 2016.

Acuna says repairs at the old building would cost at least $750,000. They’re open to leasing a new building instead, but there aren’t many options. They could lease a space built by their nonprofit, like Rilke Schule once did, but building a new school would take years.

The nonprofit Friends of ANCCS has asked the community for donations and outside organizations for help finding a new space. On Friday, they’ll host a dinner and silent auction at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The Alaska Native corporation Cook Inlet Region, Inc. recently chose the charter school as a beneficiary for its annual golf tournament. Acuna has also asked other Native corporations for their support but says he hasn’t heard back from most of them.

The online donation page lists a goal of $500,000. Acuna says, so far, they’ve raised less than $10,000.

Roger Hamacher is another member of the school’s committee. He said the biggest impact of the move has been on the school’s cultural education.

“Elders from the community would come in and teach the kids ivory carving, or seal skinning, leather preparation, and that has taken a massive hit,” he said. “You can’t have a giant drum circle going on in East High School.”

Hamacher works with at-risk youth, and he said promoting pride in Alaska Native culture can have benefits far beyond graduation.

“They are understanding who they are, their importance to the world, their culture’s importance to the world, and they walk out of there stronger than when they came in,” he said. “They can stand up to anything at that point.”

He said that’s why it’s so important for ANCCS to get back to a space of their own.

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Room dividers separate the library area from the main hallway. Principal Sheila Sweetsir says noise travels easily when other classes walk by. (Photo by: Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

In the meantime, principal Sheila Sweetsir said they’re still getting used to the current space.

“The things that come with high school affect us, too,” Sweetsir said. “When they have a lockdown, our little kids go into a lockdown. When they go into a stay put, we all go into a stay put, too.”

The space itself is a challenge, too. There’s no cafeteria or multipurpose room, so kids eat lunch in their classrooms. Staff that had their own offices at the old building — like special education teachers, Yup’ik teachers and the school’s interventionist — now have makeshift cubicles separated by bookshelves. Portable room dividers separate the library area from the main hallway. Teachers don’t have a break room, so they eat lunch in their classrooms, in the stairwell or at a table in the front hallway.

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Extra chairs and desks are stacked in room at the end of the charter school’s floor. A barrier made of PVC pipe and paper blocks other stored supplies. The special education teacher also meets with students in this room. (Photo by: Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

Starr said it’s affected morale.

“When we had the old building, I think that all of us had a sense of being more grounded,” she said. “The kids had a playground, and we had a gym and a lunchroom. We had all the attributes of a regular school.”

Noise travels easily between the room dividers. At first, it was hard for kids to concentrate, but they’ve gotten used to it, Sweetsir said.

There’s one thing they haven’t gotten used to: the high school plays music during passing periods over the loudspeaker. Parents have spoken at school board meetings about some of the lyrics being inappropriate for young kids. Teachers have to shut their classroom doors and try to talk over the music.

All of these challenges — the music, the lockdowns, the lack of a playground and office space — are why the charter school is fundraising for a new building.

For now, Acuna hopes Friday’s event brings both funds and awareness as the search for a new space continues.