Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire 
Riverbend Elementary School principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis gestures at the walls and concrete floors left bare following massive flooding from a burst pipe in the school in January.

Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire Riverbend Elementary School principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis gestures at the walls and concrete floors left bare following massive flooding from a burst pipe in the school in January.

New walls, news roof, new name: Riverbend undergoing major changes

The school board will vote on the name change in April.

A spell of bitterly cold weather in January caused pipes to burst in Riverbend Elementary School, requiring its shutdown while crews stripped out sodden carpets and drywall.

Now, the school is looking at summertime repairs to the walls, roof, and a brand-new name gifted from the A’akw Kwáan to the school, said Riverbend principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis.

The school would be renamed Kax̱digoowu Héen, describing a part of the Mendenhall River where the strong current made it particularly difficult to place fish traps. The Riverbend name would be removed from the school and become part of the facility’s past, Pisel-Davis said.

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“In 2018, the Mendenhall River pushed through the bend, changing the landscape. The distinct bend in the river near Riverbend School no longer exists. The mighty river determined its path,” Pisel-Davis wrote in a letter that recently went out to parents. “We choose to see this as encouragement for the community of this school to determine the course of our existence in this place and to provide an example to our students that they hold the power to carve their own path.”

The Juneau Board of Education will vote on the name change in April, including a period of public comment. Staff and teachers have been working with students and parents to explain why the name change is sought, said Shawna Puustinen, a long time teacher at Riverbend and proponent for the name change.

“The kids are pretty excited. With kids, it’s about how you present. We’ve tried really hard to not just say, our name is gonna change. We’re trying to present what an honor it is,” Puustinen said in an interview. “Everyone likes getting a gift, right? They feel important.”

The name was gifted by Fran Houston of the A’akw Kwáan, Puustinen said.

“Getting the opportunity to support young people who share some of the hardships you have shared becomes a passion thing. Growing up I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be proud to be Tlingit. This project has become really important to me. I think the students need that connection to something,” Puustinen said. “Giving every kid that place of knowing where they came from is really powerful. If that has to be a school because that’s the part they have, that’s OK.”

Back in the yards

After the pipes burst in early January, flooding the school with more than 32,000 gallons of water, Riverbend had to shut down while staff and the school district reckoned with the scale of the damage, Pisel-Davis said.

“We had two different pipes burst. That released a great deal of water through the school,” Pisel-Davis said. It went down all of our halls. It went into most of the classrooms. All of the carpeting had to be pulled up. All the insulation and drywall had to get pulled out.”

The carpeting and drywall would be enough to replace on their own. But some of the losses were more personal, Puustinen said. Many teachers keep books in baskets on the floor, Pisel-Davis, where kids could easily access them. Many of those books were destroyed by the water.

“I’ve been collecting books for 20-plus years,” Puustinen said. “There are some things you can’t replace.”

Riverbend moved its students to the Chapel by the Lake for six weeks, Pisel-Davis said. That was a good stopgap solution while crews made the school inhabitable again, Pisel-Davis said, though some parts of the Riverbend building are still unable to be reopened due to safety concerns.

“We don’t have our library and three of our classrooms because of ongoing roof issues. They haven’t been able to restore things in a way that’s safe for kids and adults,” Pisel-Davis said. “The Riverbend roof has had ongoing problems pretty much since the building opened. There are several areas in our building where there’s continual leaking into classrooms.”

All of that is due to be fixed this summer, Pisel-Davis said. The contract to fix the roof was issued even before the pipes burst; the contract to fix the interior is still in the process of being issued, Pisel-Davis said. The school’s gym is filled with furniture and other material needed by the school but without a good home in the building to return to just yet.

“We turned our largest classroom into the Riverbend pop-up fitness studio,” Pisel-Davis said. “I think they miss the gym, but they’re finding it unique and they’re finding ways to have fun.”

The work to the roof and the interior is all scheduled to be finished over the eight-week summer break, Pisel-Davis said.

“I am so thankful that the staff and my students just stepped up; they figured out how to deal with it,” Pisel-Davis said. “Everyone was flexible and resilient and had a positive attitude.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire 
Riverbend Elementary School’s gym is currently serving as a storage area as the school prepares for major repairs from flooding and separately, to the school’s roof.

Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire Riverbend Elementary School’s gym is currently serving as a storage area as the school prepares for major repairs from flooding and separately, to the school’s roof.

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