Guests and officials joined Port Alsworth students, staff, and community members to officially open the new Tanalian School on Tuesday, August 18.
This story originally aired on the August 21st Bristol Bay and Beyond.
Audio transcript: Tuesday August 18 was the first day back for students in the twelve schools of the Lake and Peninsula Borough. It was 13 schools; Egegik was closed this year after enrollment fell below the 10 student threshold needed for state funding.
That closure highlighted the vulnerability of the region’s small and remote communities. Some say, “as goes the school, so goes the village.”
But at the far north end of the Borough, at the far north end of what the salmon still consider Bristol Bay, one community is not just getting by, it’s growing. With roughly 150 residents, Port Alsworth, on the edge of Lake Clark, exudes a comfortable confidence in its future.
A couple hundred gathered there Tuesday to celebrate the opening of the new Tanalian School, home to 56 students, three preschoolers, and the largest senior class in its history.
Salina Alsworth is one of the six seniors. She was pulled out of music class to give a tour of the new building Tuesday morning, highlighting first the size of the new building.
“The old school used to end about right here, and the original school ended about the end of this library. So, it’s pretty awesome,” she said.
Awesome is an adequate adjective to describe the new Tanalian School, home of the Lynx, which was completed this summer.
It took just two years from the time Lake and Pen voters approved a $20 million dollar bond package, $15 of which was directed to this school, to see it completed.
Walking past the library and down the school’s main hallway, Alsworth noted the open concept of the school’s design, with lots of windows, high ceilings, and unique classroom walls.
“It’s interesting. They’re glass garage doors, so I don’t know if they’re going to be distracting yet, or if they’re going to be helpful. But it’s cool being able to see what’s going on in other classrooms.”
Each classroom has a breakout room where a student can work quietly with a tutor or do college correspondence classes. Tanalian is a modern schoolhouse top to bottom, with ergonomic chairs, water bottle fillers at the fountains, and smart boards. In a one class, students are drawing on the walls with markers.
“And these colored walls are also like a whiteboard,” said Alsworth.
The students at Tanalian have lockers for the first time in their career, and finally have a gym they can serve a volleyball or throw an inbounds pass without stepping over the line or hitting against the wall.
Boxes of books will be brought out of storage and shelved in a library that finally has space for them. The entryway can actually hold all the winter boots and snowshoes, and there’s an obvious enthusiasm about the future.
“Oh yeah, I’m super excited,” Alsworth said. “I can’t wait to see my little sister grow up in this school, she’s really lucky. But I will definitely miss the small school aspect.”
“My name is Sam Blom, and I’m going to be a junior this year.”
Blom is also the president of the student council. He described last year, when Tanalian students used the community church after the old building was knocked down to make room for the new.
“We made it work,” he said. “We didn’t know how it would go at first. It was hard being president when there was no school, but it was good. I think we grew a lot, the whole school grew a lot through it.”
If school was tough, sports were tougher. All practice was outside, which got a little dark and chilly come basketball season. The teams also couldn’t host any games so they were always on the road. None did very well last year. But don’t bother looking for remorse from the students; they didn’t mind the tight quarters in the church, and they say the cramped years in the old school actually made them a closer student body in what is a very tight knit community.
But Principal Nate Davis says the new school was a worthy investment as Tanalian had clearly outgrown itself.
“Even though I’ve only been here three years, we’ve been coming up summer vacationing for 40 years. So we remember when the school was in an old hangar, and there was about 10 kids in it. And then, in the eighties they built a school that held about 20 or 30, and had a three-quarter court gym. It was fun, and it worked for its time and season, and we loved it. But with 60 kids, we were renting other facilities around town. To see it all come together was just phenomenal.”
New schools are not built cheaply. This one cost about $15 million dollars. The Borough put a bond measure on the ballot in 2013, asking Lake and Pen voters to approve the total $20 million dollar package to build Tanalian, renovate the Newhalen gym, and make energy efficiency upgrades elsewhere throughout the district. About 70 percent of the 318 votes cast agreed to take on the debt, with hopes the state will pay back around 70 percent of it.
The Borough’s first and still mayor Glen Alsworth supported the bond package. The number of voters who did too tells him something about how they collectively see what’s to come for Lake and Pen, which turned 26 this year.
“If we invest in our young people, I think it’s the strongest indication that we have a lot of confidence in our future,” he said. “This is just a huge sign of confidence that the voters moved forward with this project. I think it’s going to be a great return.”
The Tanalian sports teams may not have had great seasons last year, but their choir never fails to impress. Just before Mayor Alsworth and the state’s education commissioner Mike Hanley cut the official ribbon, the choir performed the national anthem: