Nikiski Elementary gets ready for closure

Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Thursday afternoon, students at Nikiski Elementary School will gather a year's worth of papers and pencils, round up lost jackets and boots and say goodbye to school for another summer.

But this time, they won't be coming back.

The school, which opened more than 40 years ago to accommodate a growing student population in Nikiski, is closing this year due to declining enrollment. Next fall, all Nikiski-area kindergarten through sixth-grade students will head to North Star Elementary School, which is to be renamed Nikiski-North Star Elementary School.

While many in the community recognize the need to consolidate the schools, the change is not occurring without some grief.

"There are a lot of memories and a lot of ghosts," said Debbie Poole, during a closing ceremony at the school May 15. Her children attended Nikiski Elementary.

The school the first built in the North Peninsula area first opened in January 1963, as North Kenai Elementary School. Operated during its first year by the state, North Kenai Elementary joined the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District when it formed in 1964.


Students play at lunch outside the 41-year-old school. Some hope to convert the building into a community center.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Throughout the past 41 years, the school has undergone plenty of changes.

Mark Beauchamp, who served as principal of the school from 1972 to 1986, recalled the constant growth the school went through in its early years.

"I was very aware of the opening of a school in Nikiski in 1963, even though I was in Nome. It was exciting, though I never dreamed I'd be a part of that school," Beauchamp told a couple hundred people attending the closing ceremony. "It became a reality because parents identified a need and wanted their students educated closer to home."

The school may have opened in 1963, but it was far from finished. Throughout the 1960s, Beauchamp said a gym and additional wings were added as student populations soared.

Other changes occurred, too. The school saw 12 principals come and go in its 41-year history. It went through three different mascots the Roughnecks, Knights and now, Bullfrogs. It was renamed Nikiski Elementary School in 1982.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, was the turnaround the Nikiski community and much of the Kenai Peninsula began to see in the early 1990s. The booming population that had necessitated the additions to the school and eventually the construction of North Star Elementary School in 1987, began to age, and enrollment started its decline.

By this school year, the two Nikiski-area elementary schools each with a capacity of 500 students house about 400 kids all together. The decline in enrollment doesn't look to change in the coming years.

Two years ago, the district began discussing consolidation plans that would save money and allow more comprehensive programs for students in the two schools.

The decision was wrought with dissent, but the consolidation went through. The last year has been spent planning for the melding of two school communities.

Part of that planning was the closing ceremony, a time set aside to honor the past.

"A school that has accomplished so much should be closed with warm remembrances and good feelings," Beauchamp said.

The school's gym was packed with community members gathered to pay respects to the history of the building, from teachers and parents to current students and alumni. Photos and memorabilia lined the gym walls, offering visitors a chance to walk through 40 years of history.

For many, it was an emotional trip. For others, it was simply educational.

"I found a picture of dad when he was in kindergarten," shouted one young girl, racing through the crowd.

"The school is part of the history of Nikiski," said Joanne Hardesty, who volunteered at the school. "To be at the closing is part of the history, too."

Gary Lamm, one of the school's first students, agreed.

"I was here the first year. I'm the only one who showed up," said Lamm, who attended the school for fifth and sixth grade in 1963-65.

Lamm, who still lives in the Nikiski area, said he believes the closing of the school is necessary.

"I'm sure it's a good community thing," he said. "But it's kinda sad."

Staff at the school echoed the sentiment, noting a period of change in the near future.

"It'll be real different next year, not driving into here," said Colleen Puch, who has been a Nikiski-area bus driver since 1985.

Peggy Jones, who is a Title VII tutor and has worked at the school for five years, agreed.

"Some people get a little emotional, misty. They'll miss the old school, especially if they've been here a long time," she said. "But it's a good move for the community. It'll bring all the kids together, so there's no 'which school is better.'"

It was the students themselves who seemed most concerned about the actual melding of the two buildings.

Though many said they had a few friends already attending North Star Elementary, several students also said they were nervous about the shift.

Third-grader Daniel Rib-bens said he's worried about meeting so many new teachers in one year and about getting lost in the new school. His real concern, though, seemed to be combining different circles of friends.

"I think it's going to be kind of strange," he said. "I know lots of kids at North Star. I'm going to have to choose some friends or other friends. Right now, I see lots of kids just sometimes, and that's OK. When we all go there, it's going to be pretty hard."

Fifth-grader Caty Reit said she is more concerned about the people she doesn't know.

"Going to North Star will be scary," she said. "There's going to be people we don't know, and it's their school, not ours."

Current Principal Mark Norgren, however, said he was surprised by the kids' concerns and thinks the anticipated problems probably will go away quickly.

The two schools already have held some joint activities to help kids get to know each other, and Nikiski students had an opportunity to visit North Star to get acclimated.

"I think the kids are going to have the easiest time. It's evident when you put the two groups together," he said. "Kids are very resilient."

In addition, planners of the consolidation are making efforts to avoid the "our school"-"their school" distinction by renaming the North Star building and emphasizing the opening of a new school: Nikiski-North Star Elementary School.

The theme of the entire consolidation process is "Opening a new door in 2004," explained current North Star Principal Lori Manion.

Manion will remain principal in Nikiski next fall, while Norgren takes over principalship of Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and Hope schools. The rest of the staffs will blend much as the children will.

There will be an opening ceremony for the new school Aug. 23.

"I anticipate and look forward to the day I can visit the school and feel the special atmosphere that's resulted in the melding," said Beauchamp.

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