‘You’re part of our family’: Anchorage students from a now-closed JBER school get warm welcome into new classrooms

Kathryn Earhart’s third- and fourth-grade students line up outside during a tour of Aurora Elementary School on Thursday, the first day of school for thousands of students across the Anchorage School District. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage teacher Kathryn Earhart took her third- and fourth-grade students on a tour of Aurora Elementary School Thursday morning. It was the first day of school, and Earhart got to know her way around the building right along with them.

Earhart is among the group of teachers and students sent to new schools on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson this fall after their school, Ursa Major Elementary, was closed by the Anchorage School District over earthquake concerns.

“It’s been overwhelming, and it’s definitely been a roller coaster, but we have a really great supportive team here,” Earhart said.

Thousands of students across the Anchorage School District returned to classrooms on Thursday morning for the 2022-23 school year. On base, about 200 Ursa Major students went to Aurora, with others going to Orion Elementary or Ursa Minor Elementary. It was an added layer of newness to their first day back. But, Earhart said, the students seemed to be taking it in stride. They’re resilient.

“They are very quick to welcome new people, they’re very adaptive,” said Earhart, who’s in her 12th year of teaching on base. “The families and the community that they’ve built is very near and dear to my heart.”

Jack Chandler works on a word search in Kathryn Earhart’s class at Aurora Elementary School. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

Aurora Elementary principal Margaret Jones said that community is especially important this year for Ursa Major families. To help with the transition, Aurora held its open house the day before school started, rather than the usual first week of September. 

“I told parents last night, ‘You’re not guests here. You’re part of our family,’” she said. 

The start of the school year hasn’t been easy. Schools on JBER haven’t been immune to the district’s shortage of bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Jones said 95% of Ursa Major students had lived within walking distance of the school. Now, they’re walking to bus stops instead. Aurora also doesn’t have a cafeteria manager, so the school can’t serve hot lunch.

There have also been changes inside the building. There are more classes per grade level this year — there are four kindergarten classes instead of just one — and they rearranged classrooms to keep grade levels close together.

Jones said Aurora Elementary is used to new students coming in and others leaving during the year.

“In a typical Title I school, we see about 23 to 26% mobility rate. On the base schools, we see a much higher rate — almost double what we see in a Title I school,” she said. “We may not be Title I designated, but we do have a lot of those similar needs.”

Those needs include extra social and emotional support. Teachers in each class appoint students to help welcome their new classmates, in a program called Anchored for Life. On their tour of the school, Earhart’s students stopped to high-five Sky, the eagle mascot.

Margaret Jones is the principal of Aurora Elementary School. This fall, the school welcomed several teachers and students from Ursa Major Elementary, another school on base that closed due to earthquake safety concerns. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

Jones said the pandemic has taught students and staff to be flexible. Standing outside Earhart’s classroom, Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said he appreciated it.

“We have immense gratitude for the families and the staff and the school leaders who stepped up to make sure it’s a smooth transition,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but being at the schools this morning has shown me that we’re all ready to do whatever it takes to make sure the Ursa Major students are taken care of.”

Earhart agreed.

“There’s a lot of difficulties right now that the district is facing, not just on base,” Earhart said. “But I think there’s a great support system on base.”

Kathryn Earhart and a student in her classroom at Aurora Elementary School on Aug. 18, 2022. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)
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