Middle schools are scattered through the Anchorage bowl, some built decades ago, named for those who left their mark on Alaska’s history. Names like Begich, Central, Clark, Goldenview, Gruening, Hanshew, Mears, Mirror Lake, Romig, and Wendler round out the ten dedicated middle schools in the district.
ASD middle schools are host to 7th-8th grades, except Clark, Begich, and Mirror Lake, which also include 6th grade in their educational communities. Two K-8 schools – Girdwood and Northern Lights ABC – are thrown into the mix for good measure. The count for middle school students in ASD last year ran about 7,200.
Gruening Middle School stands out.
Good news abounds for Gruening Middle School (GMS) students and their families. On their last “report card” GMS boasted an attendance record and Alaska School Performance Index (ASPI) higher than the district average, as well as a four-star rating.
Bobby Jefts is justifiably proud of his school as he launches into his 11th year as Gruening Principal.
“I’m probably as excited at the start as I have been in years past. That’s kind of neat for me to still have the enthusiasm for a new year. I was just meeting with the department chairs before you got here and the staff is also excited about the new school year–and the kids coming,” he said.
Of course, he is referring to the kids that GMS has been trusted to provide with the best learning opportunities possible.
Jefts understands the expectation.
“People in the area know that a lot of people feel very passionate about this school; it’s a unique community, and I’m blessed to come to work every day!” he said. “Our teachers are passionate about what they do here, and I mean that in all sincerity.”
“I’ll tell you something,” Jefts explained, “Our student population runs pretty much right at 600. We’ve been pretty consistent. A lot of it has to do with the military, and I think what surprises some people—it surprised me when I came here after teaching in just about every middle school in Anchorage—Gruening once had the highest transitory rate of any middle school in ASD. That had to do with the military, and those military kids bring a lot of richness to our school because some of those kids have been all over the world!”
What kinds of unique offerings are at Gruening?
“We do have some pretty unique electives the kids really enjoy,” he enthused. “An engineering elective is coming back this year and Wildlife Biology. It’s Alaska-specific taught by a long-term Alaskan about the outdoors. We have a very interesting elective called ‘Mysteries of History’ that kids really enjoy.” Then he paused, “You know, despite budget cuts and losing staff we’re going to try and incorporate courses that kids really enjoy.”
What about Math?
Jefts addressed the core subjects as well, “We have kids who are right on target for grade-level in math, we also have students proficient in Algebra and Geometry; we have kids who struggle with math, and support systems in place for them as well. We use a lot of testing data to help place kids in classes where they should be for skill level development.”
A lot has changed since the days when ASD transitioned students from single-teacher elementary classes to multi-teacher high schools in “Jr. High.” Two teams of four specialty teachers covering the core subjects of math, science, language arts and Social Studies now work with a designated cadre of students instructionally and collaboratively to monitor, mentor and shepherd them toward high school.
When asked about whether ASD might close Gruening due to budget issues, Jefts again drew on the strength of this community.
“Granted, this building is old, and it needs some upgrades, but this is a strong community. I’ve taught in a portable before, and you make it work. It’s not an ideal situation, but you make it work. We make it happen!” Further, “There was talk at one time about remodeling Gruening. We were onboard for that but State reimbursement has been pushed to the back burner. I don’t think it will happen until after I retire. I thought it would be exciting to transition into a new building, but we’ll just continue to make it happen here.”
Donn Liston has lived in Alaska since 1962 and in Eagle River since 2010. He was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News during pipeline construction and is now a teacher after becoming certified in Juneau after living there 20 years. He has taught Adult Basic Education for the last 10 years. To reach Donn, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.