After winter weather led to a burst pipe at Riverbend Elementary School last week, school officials started searching for a place where students and staff could gather for classes. As officials looked at alternatives, a community network led to an unexpected solution — moving most of the school to the open education wing at the Chapel by the Lake church near Auke Bay.
According to Tim Harrison, senior pastor at the church, it all started with a call from a parishioner shortly after school officials shared news of the school’s predicament last week.
He explained that parishioner and church board member Michelle Strickler, who is also the Glacier Valley Rotary Club president, called him and asked if the church would consider hosting the school.
Harrison liked the idea.
On Friday, Harrison called Ted Wilson, director of teaching and learning support for the Juneau School District, and pitched the church’s classrooms, office and commercial kitchen as a possible solution.
In a strange twist, the church had recently completed a fully ADA-compliant remodel after a pipe burst last winter during a cold snap.
The call led to a visit from school officials and a quick decision to move the majority of Riverbend’s students and staff to the church.
Harrison shared the news with his congregation Sunday morning as school officials shared the information with families.
“Our congregation applauded,” Harrison said. “Our church is not just for our own members. The school can be here for whatever season. We can flex and adjust. Caring for our children and families is a paramount value.”
Wilson expressed appreciation for the outpouring of community support.
“We are so fortunate that Chapel by the Lake has such a great set of learning spaces, and was willing to share them with Riverbend,” Wilson said, confirming the move to the Empire in a Tuesday morning email.
Wilson said that school officials were in the process of identifying spaces within other Juneau School District facilities, such as Mendenhall River Community School and Floyd Dryden Middle School, when the call came in.
“We went out to look at the Chapel facilities and were relieved to see that instead of dividing the school into small pods, we could keep most of the community together in a location that really is the best school setting we could have hoped for when facing a building closure like this,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that the University of Southeast Alaska offered classroom space and use of the recreation center for library and physical education classes and internet-intensive programs such as Fast Forword and assessments. Additionally, the Riverbend preschool will move to Auke Bay Elementary School, and some specialized education services will be provided in an alternative location.
Wilson said the plan is to move the school “this week and begin classes ASAP.”
Volunteers pitch in
After the announcement on Sunday, about 50 volunteers arrived at the church on Monday to start clearing out the rooms and ready them for students.
Volunteers included church members, members of local Rotary clubs, school parents and high school students, who had the day off due to the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.
“This is helping us do our spring cleaning early,” joked David Morris, facility manager for the church.
Morris was on hand Monday to help organize the work as volunteers moved books and furniture and helped vacuum, dust and clean spaces. He showed off checklists in front of each classroom door that outlined the tasks awaiting volunteers in each room.
Grace Sikes, a student at Thunder Mountain High School, president of the school’s Interact Club, and vice president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter, said she was there to support community educators and students.
“The need arose, and we had groups that could help,” Sikes said. “The call went out Sunday night, and we wanted to help. It feels great to pitch in.”
Sikes said the crew of students had been vacuuming, moving furniture, cleaning doorknobs and doing other things to make the school building as safe as possible for the students.
Church member Bill Dancil said he was happy to be on hand helping out.
“I think it’s great to help the community,” he said. “This is very nice to see.”
Michelle Weaver, PTO president at Riverbend School and mother of a second grade student at the school, said the move would prove “an interesting experience for students.”
“We are so thankful the church is available,” she said during a short break from cleaning.
Strickler was one of the volunteers on hand Monday. She said that work would go on this week with members of Juneau’s four Rotary clubs lending a hand to help teachers set up classrooms and get ready for the move.
“As Rotarians we are always looking for ways to help the community,” Strickler said.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.