$25M school boosts pride in Kongiganak

Posted: Monday, December 06, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Building Alaska's newest Bush school meant pounding steel pilings 60 feet into the tundra, installing special devices to keep the permafrost frozen, and building a frozen airstrip on a lake.

Oh, and don't forget the $25 million for the new Kongiganak school - named after a Yup'ik elder known for his walrus-hunting skills.

The price comes to about $166,000 for each of the 150 students in the all-grades school.

It's worth every penny, said Daryl Daugaard, site administrator.

"Kids need to have a good quality school to work with so they can feel proud," he said.

At 34,000 square feet, the facility than doubles the size of the old school that was threatened by flooding.

It boasts larger classrooms, upgraded technology and a big library - the first thing students see after entering the building.

Learning is easier now, said Daugaard.

Four classes that met in the old gym were set off only by partitions. The noise interrupted learning.

Now every class has its own room, reducing distractions, he said.

Even better, the school might someday be powered partly by wind turbines, reducing electric bills and freeing up educational dollars.

State effort

The Ayagina'ar Elitnaurviak school is part of the state's decade-long effort to update rural schools.

It followed a judge's 2001 ruling that the state's rural school construction practices were inadequate and discriminatory, since Native students occupy most rural schools.

The Kasayulie case that prompted the ruling came after a decade-long dry spell in the 1990s, when the Legislature had stopped providing money to replace rural schools, said Willie Kasayulie, from Akiachak village.

Things are better today, though Kasayulie and others say there's a long way to go.

The state's spent around half a billion dollars replacing some 20 schools in Western Alaska. It has spent hundreds of millions more upgrading old schools.

The progress continues. In November, Alaska voters approved a bond package that will provide about $125 million to update or replace three village schools in Southwest Alaska.

Lawmakers also took a big step early this year, passing a bill that creates a funding stream for rural school construction that's tied to state money spent on urban schools.

This latest wave of construction replaces some of the original high schools the state built three decades ago in 126 villages.

That effort was forced by the Molly Hootch lawsuit brought by villagers in the 1970s.

Today's schools are beefier and much costlier, but still basic by many standards, said Bill Murdock, a project manager for the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

They lack the frills you'd find in urban schools, such as landscaping and tiled murals.

When the district dipped into its state-allotted art fund in Kongiganak, the district paid for a walrus motif and part of the building it's attached to.

"Many schools are going to use that money for 100 percent art, but we incorporated it into our canopy to shed rain off our entryway," said Murdock, who oversaw the Kongiganak school project for the district.

Workers overcame unique challenges to build the school, he said.

No roads lead to the building, so some of the building could take place only in winter, when the tundra froze solidly enough to support cranes and other rigs.

And when the project began two years ago, the airstrip wasn't adequate to accept a C-130 transport plane, so villagers cleared snow from a frozen lake to build an airstrip.

So kids could get to school, a half-mile long boardwalk was built from the town. It came in useful this fall, serving as a road when the river barge arrived with desks and other supplies that needed hauling to the school.

Named for elder

The former school in the village - the Dick R. Kaiunya Memorial School - was built after residents founded Kongiganak at the Kuskokwim River mouth.

They had moved from the nearby village of Kwigillingok to escape flooding in the late 1960s, state records show.

One of the pioneers was John Ayagina'ar Phillip Sr., a proponent of education and the school that now bears his name.

Phillip, 85, is a familiar face among Kongiganak's young. He's given cultural lessons at the school - such how to make harpoon tips or traditional sealskin kayaks, like the version he made that hangs in the new school.

Reached by his cell phone, Phillip spoke in Yup'ik through an interpreter - his granddaughter Katie Mute.

Mute said Phillip is known as a skilled walrus hunter, with a knack for getting close to the animals to select the best one.

She asked her grandfather if he was honored to have the new school bear his name. Phillip replied that he wants all the students in that school to learn and graduate.

The old school needed to be replaced because it was crowded, run down and potentially dangerous, with an outdated electrical system and mechanical system, said Jeremy Shiok, business development manager for Bezek Durst Seiser Architects, the school's designer.

It also sat in the path of an eroding river, and the U.S. Army Corps warned that a big storm could cause flooding that would wipe the school out, said Shiok.

The new school sits on slightly higher ground, safe from the river.

But water could still pose a problem - causing serious buckling - if the permafrost thaws too much.

To prevent that from happening, builders installed thermosiphons, passive heat exchangers that help keep the ground frozen around the pilings.

The permafrost is 31.8 degrees.

"If it goes up above freezing we have a big pond," he said.

Five powerful wind turbines also rise near the school. There's talk that the local power utility might provide excess power to the school, once the turbines are running.

That could free up money for education or travel dollars for students, said Gary Baldwin, district superintendent

"We're hopeful that we can benefit from that," he said.

Transforming village

The school, which opened this fall, had a "transformative effect" on the entire community, said Shiok, who attended a ribbon-cutting in the village last month.

"A real community changing building comes around every 30 or 40 years out there," said Shiok, who lives in Anchorage. "This is as fresh as it gets, and you can just see the impact."

As for the students, they're excited about the much-bigger gym and interactive Smart boards in each class that act like big touch screen computers, said Frank Phillip.

The 17-year-old senior, a grandson of John Phillip Sr., also loves the "shop," which the old school lacked.

In that vocational training area, he and other students assembled desks and tables for the new school.

They've also begun repairing engines, and Phillip said he's picked up some carpentry skills that might help with a job someday.

Every kid has their own locker now, too.

They're big enough to fit big arctic parkas, so hallways aren't cluttered with coats and other stuff, said Phillip.

Students are personalizing their lockers in that age-old high school ritual. Phillips hung up ghosts and other Halloween paraphernalia.

"It's good in here," he said of the new school. "You get to experience more."

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