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Inside the Effort to Get Stebbins Students Back in School

Stebbins School student Rydan Henry practices his basketball skills just feet away from what's left of his school. Ben Townsend photo.

It’s day two of Stebbins’ response to a fire that destroyed the village’s only school. N95 respirators are being handed out to residents to prevent illness from toxic fumes emanating from the ruins. The city office buzzed as people came and went like worker bees in a busy hive. 

Daisy Katcheak, City Administrator of Stebbins, sat in a chair in the back corner of the room speaking with an intensity and clarity that made everyone in the room listen -and believe- in every word she said. 

“We’re doing everything we can to make accommodations for the children, to make them comfortable,” Katcheak said. “To let them know that they are on the top of our list, and that they are the backbone of our community, that they are our future.”

Stebbins School, part of Bering Strait School District, was set to begin classes on August 21. With the school now in ruins and a new facility taking up to three years to complete, Katcheak is moving quickly to find solutions. 

Several ideas are being put on the table, including converting facilities in Stebbins to classrooms. An old Head Start building, now being used as housing, has been offered by the city to be converted to classrooms along with a vacated Alaska Army National Guard facility. 

After a fire burned down their old store in 2022 the village relocated it to the city building on the north side of town. With additional barged materials arriving this summer, they hope to finish construction by the end of July. The freed up space is another candidate for classrooms. 

Katcheak hopes to send high school students to nearby St. Michael. There, the students would be able to use the school gym so they can still compete in sports.

St. Michael has offered to put up walls in a gym owned by the city to create classrooms for the displaced students. After improvements to a 10 mile road connecting the villages the high schoolers would need to take buses daily to go to school. 

There are a lot of moving parts in the effort to get students back in school this fall. BSSD has said they are still in the planning phase and that no definitive decisions have been made yet. 

Moving Forward

Across the street at the office of local construction company Tapraq Rock Dustin Scalisi finally took a seat. He fielded questions and doled out answers via two cell phones and a radio strapped to his chest. 

The local outfit played a critical role in holding back the blaze Wednesday night. Their crew rushed to the scene and used bulldozers to build berms to hold back the fire. Tapraq Rock is partially owned by Stebbins Native Corporation and employs a growing local workforce of about 30. For Scalisi, there was no doubt sending in his crew was the right thing to do. 

“It's my obligation, if you will, but it's also my pleasure to take all the resources that we have, that the community has helped us to get, and to then allow those resources to be used positively for the community."

Tapraq Rock has already purchased additional heavy machinery and is standing by to assist with cleanup efforts. They’ll be contracted to improve the road between Stebbins and St. Michael. Tapraq Rock has also offered to plow the road through the winter so school buses can safely travel between the villages. 

As Stebbins faces a housing shortage, an idea on the table is to enlist Tapraq Rock to renovate apartments in St. Michael to house teachers. All of this work will cost a lot of money.  

“We have a lot of smart, intelligent, skilled people who want to work, who need to work,” Scalisi said. “In all reality, you can only do what you have money to do, right? So, while Stebbins is very self-sustaining, it’s still about getting that funding to help support recovery efforts.”

There is still a lot to be worked out in the village of over 600 people. With support from St. Michael, Katcheak hopes to show the next generation what can be accomplished by working together.

“We’ve been telling them for the past two years, your life is going to transform,” Katcheak said. “Our local leaders are working hard to change your life. To change your persona of being beaten to empowering yourself with unity and teamwork.”

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