HOUSTON — The Houston Hawks have a family feel at the Houston Jr./Sr. High School campus, where students in grades six through 12 are educated around what was formerly Houston High School.
Houston Middle School was condemned following the dramatic effects on the structural integrity of the building following the earthquake in November of 2018. The addition of 15 portable classrooms outdoors has provided space for students in sixth and seventh grades to attend class and created numerous difficulties for students and teachers alike.
“I think we did a really great job, I think the borough did a great job, the school district did a great job, our staff, but at the end of the day it still not ideal even though you have teachers on the same staff, but you have half of them in portables. You’re not able to make those same connections,” said HJSH Principal Ben Howard. “It’s really easy to feel isolated when you’re just by yourself all the time.”
As students at HJSH prepare to complete their spring semester coursework and head out into the summer, the Mat-Su Borough is preparing to accept bids for the Houston Middle School rebuild project estimated at $34 million. For the last two years, the Houston Hawks have shared a campus and grown stronger together as a school community.
“The community and kids have been through a lot and so I wrote the intro to this year’s yearbook and the theme of the yearbook is ‘together as one’ and so I think that really speaks to the idea of how we got through this and it was about resiliency and acting together as one and we really leaned on each other and so whenever I stop and think about all of that and then I look at the kids and the staff and the parents, they’re the ones that have made it successful because they have never given up number one, and they are always ready to pivot no matter what happens,” said Howard.
As the ground began to shake in November of 2018, Audrianna Mahoney and Kjalyn Lords were seventh graders in the same classroom. Lords had a broken foot and Mahoney sprung into action to help her classmate evacuate the building with the help of their teacher.
“I was trying to calm her down because she was really scared,” said Mahoney. “I remember looking up and the ceiling like split and like all the light was coming through and the I was like ok we’ve got to get out of here. So I was talking to her and she was like how am I going to get out of here and at first she like had her scooter and we were going out and then there were all the ceiling board on the floor and she couldn’t’ push her scooter anymore.”
Mahoney said that despite the lack of space for such a large amount of students in one building with portable classrooms, the added experience around her older classmates made the transition to high school easier this fall. Deborah Pomelow has taught at Houston for nine years and had the door to her classroom jammed by the steel beam that fell near the library during the earthquake.
“We couldn’t get out, coming down the hallway and that weird kind of, there was so much noise but yet a stillness to it because everything was just tunnel vision,” said Pomelow
Students in sixth and seventh grades do not have lockers and must carry all of their school equipment with them as well as snow gear during the winter and band instruments if they take band. The walkways between the 15 portable classrooms in the back parking lot have to be cleared by janitorial staff, and sometimes are cleared by the teachers themselves. Some teachers enjoy the isolation and ability not to interfere with another classrooms by making extraneous noise, but most have learned to deal with the lack of space over two years on one campus. Some students have only a four minute passing period to walk from one end of the school building to their portable classroom outdoors. This winter, the portable bathroom trailer parked near the portables froze. Life science teacher Erik Browning has drastically reduced the amount of lab work that he can offer students in portable classrooms.
“If you want to do real student hands on activities, you have to have counter space right for chemicals and fire and just stuff,” said Browning. “I don’t do half the hands on stuff that I would normally do, maybe even more than that.”
Browning’s portable classroom has nearly a dozen tables in the middle of the room. Along the sides are various scales, microscopes, and a portable sink. Without a lab environment to teach students life science, Browning has been limited in the availability of hands-on lesson plans.
“The kids are great. They’ll take anything that you give them right so your little demonstration they are excited about. It’s just me personally and the standards that I have for science education, it just doesn’t meet it. This doesn’t’ cut it.”
Weeks ago, a short burst of an earthquake struck southcentral Alaska. Howard says that the slight jolt still has post-traumatic effects on numerous members of the students and staff. With the passage of the Mat-Su Borough School District School Board’s measure to provide $6 million to fully fund the project to put out for bid, the future of education in Houston is imminent. Over the two years together, Howard said that the school has collectively learned to grow together as a family.
“Being able to have that family feeling again and so that would have everybody in the same building, we still want to have a relationship with the middle school and so now being together we realized how important that was,” said Howard. “Once we separate we’re going to be really intentional about keeping that relationship and so that’s going to be a positive thing.”
The bid for the $34 million Houston Middle School reconstruction project is set to appear before the Assembly in June and finish construction in time to open for the fall 2022 semester.