Award-winning Nanwalek teacher dies in house fire

James Reinseth had taught at the remote school since 2007

An award-winning educator at Nanwalek School died on Tuesday after his home caught fire in the village across Kachemak Bay from Homer.

James Reinseth, 50, was found dead in his home, which was near the school, by Alaska State Troopers and state Fire Marshals, according to an online trooper dispatch published Wednesday.

“AST and State Fire Marshalls (sic) responded to the scene and discovered a burned body inside that was believed to be James Reinseth,” troopers wrote in the dispatch.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced the death on Wednesday. Spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said Wednesday is when the district found out about the death, via the Alaska State Troopers. Nanwalek School had posted on its Facebook page on both Tuesday, the day of the fire, and Wednesday that school was closed. Students will return to school on Monday, according to Erkeneff.

Troopers received the report about the fire around 7 a.m. Tuesday, from a Nanwalek resident. The person reported that the “house was on fire and fully engulfed,” troopers wrote in the dispatch report. Local firefighters responded and put the fire out, troopers wrote.

Reinseth’s family have been notified, and troopers are investigating his death.

The school district has provided both technical and emotional support to the school and community, according to Erkeneff. On Tuesday, borough maintenance staff and representatives from Homer Electric Association responded to the village to consult and provide any needed assistance, since the fire was near the school. Additionally, Chugachmiut, an Alaska Native 501(c)3 serving Alaska Natives in the Chugach region, sent in staff to support the Nanwalek community on Tuesday evening, Erkeneff said in an email.

Erkeneff wrote that support sessions were happening remotely on Thursday for school staff, with additional sessions planned for Friday to target preparation for students returning to school on Monday.

School counselors and members of school district leadership also responded to Nanwalek on Tuesday.

“Our hearts go out to Jim Reinseth, his family, friends, and the staff, students, and community of Nanwalek where he has been an educator since 2007,” wrote Superintendent John O’Brien in the school district’s announcement of Reinseth’s death. “We are working with our principal and the village to ensure that any additional support and comfort that we can offer is provided.”

Reinseth taught in Shungnak in the Northwest Arctic Borough for eight years before coming to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in 2007. He was a recipient of the district’s Golden Apple Award in 2014. A November 2014 press release by the district describes Reiseth’s commitment to serving students in rural Alaska, where teacher turnover is often high.

“Mr. Reinseth’s longevity and devotion in his bush positions demonstrates commitment beyond what most are willing to offer,” the release states.

Reinseth was recognized for his unique teaching techniques at the time, including what the district described as “eight magic keys.” This teaching tool was recommended by then-Principal Nancy Kline for students with learning difficulties, and Reinseth worked with her and others to turn his method into a training film for other teachers.

“Every single day, Mr. Reinseth’s students live the eight magic keys: concrete, consistent, repetitive, routine, simple, specific, structured, and supervised,” according to the 2014 press release.

At the time of his Golden Apple Award, educational consultant Deb Evensen had the following to say about Reinseth:

“Watching Jim Reinseth in action is like observing a great conductor lead a symphony,” she wrote in the district press release. “He guides his multi-level classroom of diverse learners through each day using multi-sensory, whole-brain strategies built on positive support and collaboration, and links everything to their daily lives. Jim is simply one of the most skilled educators I have ever observed during my forty year career as a teacher and consultant working with schools throughout North America.”

Moving forward, the school district will work to recruit someone to fill the vacancy left by Reinseth for the rest of the year, according to Erkeneff.

“Short term, the school staff will be using inservice time on Friday to plan for how to meet the instructional needs of Mr. Reinseth’s students,” she wrote.

Until the position is filled, Nanwalek Principal Charles Crain will work to “provide consistency” for the school’s students, Erkeneff said.

The home that burned on Tuesday was district-provided housing, Erkeneff confirmed.

“Housing is available when a certified employee is in not already a resident or homeowner in the communities of Nanwalek, Port Graham, and Tyonek and needs the district to intervene to provide housing,” she wrote.

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