Bethel Yup’ik immersion school will add 7th and 8th grades at new campus

A view from above of a lot on the tundra where preliminary school construction is underway
Ayaprun Elitnaurvik’s new campus is being built next to Bethel Regional High School and the Lower Kuskokwim School District office. (Gabby Salgado/KYUK)

The Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik Immersion School in Bethel is expanding in more ways than one. The immersion school is adding two extra grade levels. At the same time, construction for a new school building is well underway.

This fall, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik will offer seventh grade for the first time. The following year, the school will add eighth grade.

On March 2, the state board of education approved the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s request to expand Ayaprun into the extra grade levels. The school district needed the state’s permission because Ayaprun is a charter school.

One of the school’s core missions is to develop students’ Yup’ik language proficiency.

“I think it gives a little longer for both languages to really flower, you know, bloom,” Clarence Daniel said about the immersion school’s expansion into junior high.

Daniel is a Lower Kuskokwim School District board chairman and a member of Ayaprun’s academic policy committee. All five of his children have gone through or are attending Ayaprun, which he says has helped them communicate with their family.

“We speak it at home, they speak it to their grandparents, they speak it when they visit our home village a lot,” Daniel said.

But Daniel said that Ayaprun is about more than just learning the Yup’ik language. It’s also about students learning Yup’ik culture. Daniel used lessons about fish as an example.

“The students can learn all of the components of the fish in the sciences and everything, the biology regarding the fish,” he said. “And then you just turn to another page and you learn about how the fish is spiritually connected to culture and what it means for providing the subsistence way.”

Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik Immersion School opened in the ’90s as a charter school for kindergarten through sixth grade. Since then, district superintendent Kimberly Hankins says that Ayaprun has become a pioneer and leader among language immersion programs nationwide.

“So we do frequently hear from other school districts around the state, asking us questions such as ‘how did you get started?’ You know, can we share our curriculum materials?” Hankins said.

Ayaprun had to rewrite part of its curriculum after some of it burned in the fire that destroyed the former school campus in 2015. Ayaprun’s students moved into a building that used to be a grocery store and have stayed there.

Now, over six years later, the district is finally close to having a new school building after wrapping up a lengthy settlement dispute with its insurance companies. Earlier this month, the district’s contractors finished driving over 100 pilings into the ground for the new school’s foundation next to Bethel Regional High School.

It will still be a few more years before Ayaprun students can move into their new school. The district previously estimated it would be completed in 2023, but Hankins said that date was delayed.

“Contractors, you know, struggling to work with COVID delays, and then facing lack of materials or just availability of construction materials in general. So the new estimated completion date is summer of ’24,” Hankins said.

The pandemic has not only delayed the project, but it has also dramatically increased the cost as well.

“And it’s due primarily to increases in the costs and materials due to the pandemic,” Hankins said.

That new cost is around $8 million more than what the school district estimated it would cost a few years ago. Last month, the district’s board agreed to pay a contractor $50,888,250 for the project, whereas the district estimated it would cost around $42 to $43 million a few years ago.

Hankins said that the insurance settlement from the Kilbuck fire won’t cover that whole amount. Luckily, she said that the district has extra funds saved away.

Once it’s completed, the new Ayaprun campus will have enough room for seventh- and eighth-graders as there were extra classrooms in the design. Asked whether Ayaprun would eventually add a high school, Hankins said that was a fun idea to think about, and she added that the immersion school is looking into expanding into pre-K as well.

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