One year after Kugaaruk school fire, student attendance is up

Students are now studying in portables and renovated community spaces, while they wait for a new school—expected to be complete by August 2019.

The new school's foundation has been poured, and it's expected to open in August 2019

Kindergarten through grade 6 is housed in six classrooms made up of 12 portables, the middle school students are studying in part of the old hamlet building and the high school students have take over the building’s community gym. (Submitted by Jerry Maciuk)

Attendance is up since students in Kugaaruk, Nunavut, lost their school building to fire a year ago.

School attendance is hovering between 85 and 89 per cent, said school principal Jerry Maciuk, adding that's higher than before the fire. The school's total student population is about 300 students.

Students are now studying in portables and renovated community spaces while they wait for a new school that's expected to be complete by Aug. 2019.

The Kugaardjuq School — which was the only school in the community — was reduced to twisted metal by a fire that started the night of Feb. 28, 2017 and burned through the next morning.

A 13-year-old was charged with arson in relation to the fire.

"It was a tragic day," said Maciuk, who recalled there being frigid temperatures at the time. "Our fire brigade was trying their best."

However, he said the tip of their hose was freezing and people were "powerless" as they watched the fire rage on.

School principal Jerry Maciuk says the support the students and staff received after the fire was enormous. (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

Maciuk says the support the students and staff received after the event was enormous in terms of territorial government funding, donations from southern Canada and energy from community members.

In the immediate aftermath, he said, Kugaaruk residents offered up their living rooms as teaching spaces. The co-op offered the back of its warehouse space and the hamlet volunteered office space.

"It was good to see," said Maciuk. "They really care about education and wanted to get everything back in order as soon as possible."

Students in kindergarten through Grade 6 are now being housed in six classrooms made up of 12 portables. Middle school students are studying in part of the old hamlet building, while high school students have taken over the building's community gym.

All the spaces have been equipped with computers and smart boards, and made to feel like classrooms.

One thing that's missing is the gym. Students are getting their exercise by running through the halls, getting outdoors and pushing their desks out of the way to play with hula hoops and skipping ropes.

However, the most significant loss was the teaching materials.

George Ningark, a teacher for 29 years, say all the information gathered in Inuktitut — including elders' interviews and pictures — are gone. And there is no way of replacing them.

The school runs a program where students receive instruction mostly in Inuktitut until they are in middle school. Maciuk said that changes after Grade 7, when English becomes the main language of instruction.

The foundations have been poured for the new school and construction will pick-up again in a few weeks. (Submitted by Jerry Maciuk)

The reaction of students and teachers to the loss of their school is what has made Maciuk the most proud, he said.

Within about a month of the fire, the students were back at school and able to finish off their year.

Eight students graduated in 2017, Maciuk said.

The breakfast and hot lunch programs have also been reinstated and feed around 100 students a day.

The new school's foundations have been poured and construction will pick up again in a few weeks, Maciuk said.

He said the new school will be two stories high, with primary, preschool and daycare children on the first floor. It will have a gym with bleachers that seat 100 people, accessible washrooms, a fitness room and ample storage space.

With files from Michelle Pucci