Private Christian schools in Anchorage grapple with outpouring of alumni stories about racial discrimination

Anchorage Christian Schools in East Anchorage. Photographed Sunday, July 19, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

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It all started with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers over Memorial Day weekend. 

Anna Simmers said she had hoped to see her alma mater, Anchorage Christian Schools, make a statement about the protests. But, she said, all that she and other students found were confusing posts that former and current staff at the school put on social media.

The posts, she said, “were either subtly or pretty overtly racist or dismissive of what Black people in America face and are experiencing. And that just reminded us of how we had been treated while we were there.”

Simmers is mixed race, part Black and part white. She graduated from Anchorage Christian Schools in 2009, and said she felt compelled to share her experience from her time as a student there.

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So, she wrote a post on social media and it quickly gained momentum and support.

Ron Hoffman, senior pastor at Anchorage Baptist Temple and Anchorage Christian Schools, said he’s looking into the complaints and re-examining the church’s children’s ministry program.

“I am committed to doing what is necessary to ensure that our students do not experience racism at ACS or ABT,” he wrote in a recent op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News.

Anchorage Christian Schools is a private school in the city run by Anchorage Baptist Temple. It enrolls students from pre-K through 12th grade.

Simmers started at ACS in the 10th grade. She said she was a champion athlete in multiple sports and a member of the honor society. But despite her contributions to ACS, she said, she did not enjoy attending the school at all. She didn’t recommend the school to families that asked her about her experience.

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Athletic coaches and staff, she said, would often make comments about Black girls’ bodies and hair, and constantly checked their clothes against the school’s dress code. 

“They would have us get on our knees in the middle of the hallway while other students are walking around to see if our skirts were down to the floor,” she said.

In June, she posted an open letter to the school on Facebook. 

Soon, other students of color began sharing their experiences with the school too. 

“It was like we all were thinking about everything that was going on in the world, and for quite a few of us, when we’re thinking about when we’ve faced the most overt racism in our lives, and just felt it at its most toxic, for so many of us that experience was at a Christian School in Alaska,” she said.

Simmers said she was flooded with responses from students of color and white students who say they witnessed or participated in such incidents. 

She set up a Facebook post where people associated with Anchorage Christian Schools could share their stories. Soon, it had more than 200 comments. Some people called out faculty and staff by name.

Several of them shared their stories with Alaska Public Media. Here’s what they had to say: 

“Throughout my time there, a lot of people including teachers, thought that jokes like ‘beaner’, ‘dirty Mexican,’ ‘border hopper,’ ‘wetback,’ like all these kinds of things were appropriate jokes.” — Gerardo Arias, who attended ACS for seventh through 12th grade. He said his parents, who immigrated from El Salvador, confronted the administration over the bullying at one point, but the administration brushed it off.

“They don’t like us. It’s been said. We hear it. It’s an undertone from even the littlest children there because that’s the culture they instill from the beginning.” — Deven Jackson, 19, speaking about the reaction of others when he went to open gym at ACS.

“I felt like you would either get picked on, made fun of, or racial slurs would be thrown your way for just simply attending and being at that school because you weren’t white. And sometimes the faculty or teachers would get involved and they would just dive in. You kind of feel helpless because there’s nobody you can really turn to who has your best interest in mind.” — A 2007 graduate of ACS who is Black and declined to share his name for fear of repercussions from his employer. 

“My dad, he always emphatically asked to desegregate the ministry and let the drive-in kids and the bus kids come together, as one youth group. However, they always told my dad, they didn’t want to put them back together. And the main reason was because the drive-in kids’ parents were fearful that their children would be around the bus kids.” — Jessica Vigil, a 2010 ACS graduate, speaking about a program she said the church had that brought in children from surrounding communities on yellow buses. Vigil said she and her family were active in church ministries. Her father was a youth group leader.

In an emailed statement to Alaska Public Media, Hoffman, the senior pastor, said he realizes that “not every student had had the perfect experience at ACS.” 

Hoffman, who also served as an athletic coach at the school, said he is asking anyone who shared their stories as part of this effort online to bring their grievances to him directly so he can address each concern. 

Simmers and other alumni from the school presented ACS with a list of suggested changes, including to desegregate the children’s Sunday School classes. They also asked the school to schedule a facilitator for mandatory racial sensitivity training for all staff and faculty to be conducted before the first day of classes. 

Simmers said she continues to talk with church and school leadership. 

Reporting of what’s taken place at Anchorage Christian Schools also sparked a separate conversation about racial discrimination at Grace Christian School, another private Christian school in Anchorage. 

Denali Romero is part of a group of Grace Christian alumni who helped to organize a peaceful protest of the school over the weekend. 

“It’s been something that was weighing on our hearts for a long time and more stories are coming out,” Romero said. “And a lot of people were saying that the stories weren’t true. A lot of parents and teachers and staff members were calling us liars. And after being silenced for a very long time, we figured it’s about time that we come together and get the community together so that we can speak up and make a change.”

Romero, who is Afro-Peruvian, graduated from Grace Christian in 2015. Since then, she said, she has tried to get the school to change the social environment so other students, would not have to go through what she went through. 

“I had a teacher who talked about immigrants like we were diseased. A teacher thought that I was on scholarship because, ‘obviously, your family wouldn’t be able to afford it’,” Romero said. 

Romero said just hours after posting about the protest, stories from other students started pouring in. 

“We’ve gotten so many more stories and so many people are scared to say anything. So they’re trusting us with their words” she said.

Grace Christian School Superintendent Randy Karlberg said in an emailed statement that the school does not support the protest, but will not stand in the way of it either. Karlberg said he personally met with Romero and others and thought they had a productive conversation. 

Both Simmers and Romero said the goal of bringing these issues to light isn’t to tear down or shame the school, but for leadership to acknowledge the harm and work to change the environment for future students. 

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