Bells ring Monday morning to signal the start of classes in Chugiak-Eagle River schools. Opening day two-thirds of a century ago was about three weeks late because the first local school building was still being finished.
It was a happy occasion for both parents and students. Until then a lone bus traveled the unpaved Palmer Highway to pick up children from stops between Eklutna Village and Eagle River and take them to Anchorage. There the elementary and high school were both located on a single block bordered by 5th and 6th Avenues and F and G Streets. Even though there was no rush hour as we know it, the trip still took a whole lot longer than today. Eagle River Hill was much steeper, the single-lane highway dipping all the way down to where a log bridge crossed barely inches above the stream.
After parents harangued the Legislature to fund a school for the pioneer community, a frame building was erected to house an expected 50 students. Waiting on the doorstep on opening day were half again that many. Soon after, the building was doubled in size and a few years after that a separate concrete block structure was erected. Both buildings still stand, by the way, and are owned by Chugiak Benefit Association (CBA), a local non-profit that has existed longer than the first schoolhouse.
Built on a relatively small site on Old Glenn Highway, the original school was plagued by over-saturated soils that threatened the on-site water supply and sewage disposal system. A land trade was made with CBA and a new school building was built on the former Carnival Grounds, a much larger parcel that now has access to public water. The replacement Chugiak Elementary opened in 1984.
It was not long before a second school was needed to handle the exploding population growth.
The Eagle River neighborhood, closer to Ft. Richardson and Anchorage, had outstripped the original Chugiak section. Eagle River Elementary was built in 1960 on a gravel pit that supplied material for improvements to the highway which by that time had been moved a bit downstream.
By 1963 parents of students of high school age were fed up with the long commute to classes in Anchorage. Operation Chugiak High School (OCHS) was formed, comprised of representatives of all 27 local civic organizations. Ed Willis and Louise Long were chosen as co-chairs. Willis and Dale Pierson traveled to Juneau to successfully appeal to the Legislature for funds to build a high school. Pierson, who was named to the Anchorage School Board the following year, pointedly responded to a rural legislator’s question about Chugiak’s location. He said that it was “20 miles south of Palmer.” That answer appealed to those who thought Anchorage received too much of the state’s capital budget.
A site for the school was chosen based on recommendations from OCHS. Residents O. W. “Bill” Lowe and Carl Steeby investigated land availability and found a large tract of land that had been selected by the State of Alaska as part of its statehood entitlement.
Chugiak High School opened in the fall of 1964. Gov. William A. “Bill” Egan spoke before a full house at the dedication ceremony held in the multi-purpose room, acknowledging the community effort that ended the long bus rides. The Senior Class of 1965 was offered the opportunity to graduate with their Anchorage classmates, but chose instead to attend the new school. Sam Cotten, a former state legislator who currently is commissioner of fish and game, was class president. Other class officers were Roger Riddell, vice-president; Diane Dickey, secretary; and Patricia Daucher, treasurer. Forty-some seniors received diplomas during the graduation ceremony held in the school’s multi-purpose room.
Adjacent to the high school site was another tract selected by the State.
It was chosen for a third elementary school based on Pierson’s recommendation. Birchwood Elementary opened in 1967, its Anchorage Basic Curriculum concept new to the district. Its goals are “based on the concept of achieving the highest standards of academics, citizenship, patriotism, responsibility, respect, and courtesy.”
A problem arose with three of the four early school sites after the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act was passed in 1971. It seems that while the State had selected the gravel pit in Eagle River and the parcels in Birchwood, it had not followed through on getting the title. Eklutna, Inc., was entitled under the Act to choose all open lands within a 25-mile radius of their village. Because much of that land was already in other hands, they exercised their option to claim any nearby property that had not been legally turned over—namely the three school sites that had been built upon.
Fortunately, a settlement was reached. Title to the land was to remain in the hands of the Native corporation in exchange for a nominal annual rental fee.
Rapid growth in this portion of the borough soon resulted in the need for a fourth elementary school.
A combination of lots was acquired from Eagle River developer Glenn Briggs who had subdivided the homestead he purchased in 1943. Although smaller than the desired size, the property already had public water and sewer. Homestead Elementary opened in 1972 and was renovated in 1990. Its initial curriculum also was a departure from the usual, featuring an “open” concept where interior walls were movable, allowing classrooms to be combined to form larger spaces.
Beginning with this site selection, choices met objections from the populace. The size of the Homestead site was criticized and competing offers brought objections. Location, price, traffic concerns and neighborhood impact entered into the discussion in later acquisitions. Where just getting a school once was the primary concern, a larger and more diverse population brought other considerations to bear.
The educational structure prior to creation of the borough called for elementary schools to be grades 1-8, with kindergartens offered by some. Division of secondary schools into junior and senior high schools came in the late 1970s and resulted in elementary levels being kindergarten to sixth grade with junior highs housing grades seven to nine and grades ten through twelve in senior highs.
By then, growth dictated that a junior high be added in Chugiak-Eagle River. While a site and building were being sought, junior high students for a time were housed at Eagle River Elementary.
A site on Wren Lane was purchased for a junior high to be named for Ernest Gruening, former governor and U.S. Senator from Alaska. The building design was an innovative one with a copper roof, colorful heating ducts in the hallways and other attractive features. Unfortunately, the design had several flaws. The hallway ducts interfered with opening the classroom doors and the roof leaked extensively. Most seriously, incorrect calculations were discovered that could have resulted in the collapse of the gymnasium. Opening of the school was delayed for a year while structural changes were made, doubling the cost of the building.
Fred Dyson, an engineer who lives in Eagle River, pointed out some of the flaws after visiting the school during early construction stages. His objections were ignored by the school district administration, but not by voters who subsequently elected him to the Anchorage Assembly and later to the Legislature. He currently is a member of the Assembly after coming out of retirement to seek the position.
During the reconstruction of the Gruening building, Chugiak Junior-Senior High School operated on the high school campus, double-shifting students. Older students attended mornings and younger ones in the afternoon.
Once open in 1984, Gruening’s program was a middle school experiment; soon afterward the district converted all junior highs to middle schools.
Population growth continued to accelerate, requiring two new elementary schools in the southern portion of the community. Fire Lake Elementary is located adjacent to the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center. It opened in 1985. Alpenglow Elementary, which opened in 1995, was added to serve the Eaglewood Subdivision and surrounding area.
Another middle school was needed to accommodate the growing number of students in that age group. A site in Chugiak not far from Mirror Lake was chosen. Called the “Jewel in the Woods” because of its scenic surroundings, the building has three pods, each named for a species of Alaska trees. The school opened in 1997. To accommodate overcrowded classes at Fire Lake and Chugiak elementary schools, where grades are kindergarten to 5, Mirror Lake takes students in grades 6-8 while Gruening serves grades 7 and 8.
The newest school is Eagle River High School, located on a parcel off the Eagle River Loop extension on high ground south of the river. It opened in 2005 after Chugiak High became severely overcrowded. It was designed to hold only 800 students and included students from Ft. Richardson to fill out its capacity. In light of history, it stands to be added onto as was the case with the first secondary school.
Schools in Chugiak and Eagle River off traditional neighborhood programs as well as open optional, language immersion, charter, and ABC programs. They have a reputation for academic and social success as well as high parent involvement – something present from the beginning.
NOTE: There are several private schools in this community, and many students are home-schooled. Also, the Eklutna Industrial School, which opened in 1924 and was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs until closed in 1947, was the area’s very first school but not open to the public.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com.