Ninilchik School: More than 100 years of history

The Ninilchik School gym has been used for lots of events: ball games, holiday celebrations, talent shows, musical performances and graduations to name a few.

None have ever packed the room quite like the event of Sept. 24, 2010: the school’s 100th anniversary. 

Everybody from Ninilchik School graduate and former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, descendant of one of Ninilchik’s founding families, to representatives from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board were on hand to mark the celebration with a crowd of former and current students and their families.

The original territorial school was constructed on a hill overlooking the village, not far from the Russian Orthodox Church. The current building, located along the Sterling Highway, was built in the early 1950s. It has gone through several renovations since, currently houses a student population of 140 K-12 students and, since 2011, has had Jeff Ambrosier as its principal.

“I wanted to expand my professional career and the Kenai district had a top-notch reputation,” said Ambrosier, who came to Ninilchik after 13 years in the Alaska Bush, mostly Southwest Alaska communities. “Everybody looked to the Kenai and still does. That reputation started years ago.”

When Ambrosier was offered the Ninilchik principalship, “without even taking a breath” he accepted the position. 

“As far as the size, it’s exactly a good transition from where I was to where I am. More so, it’s the feel of the community, being an outdoorsy, fishing community, but yet it has a lot of people that take education seriously,” said Ambrosier.

Debbie Carey is a Ninilchik parent — her daughter Sabrina is in the ninth grade and daughter Olivia is in the fifth — and a member of the school’s site council. She volunteers in the school library and teaches second grade reading through Project GRAD, a nonprofit organization encouraging student success.                  

What appeals to Carey about Ninilchik School is its level of care for students.

“Ninilchik School wants to see children succeed,” said Carey. “They want them to interact not only within the school, but outside the school, too. … Everyone has a vested interest in making sure the kids accomplish what they want to accomplish.”

Carey praised the school’s intervention efforts, recognizing students that need additional support as well recognizing high achievers.

“If you’re just concentrating all your efforts on slow learners, are you really being fair to the high learners?” said Carey. 

Lara McGinnis, whose son, Robert, is in the ninth grade, is a substitute teacher and serves on the site council. She is the boys basketball team tutor, helps fundraiser for the school and volunteers wherever help is needed.

“I love the school’s PBIS program,” said McGinnis of the Positive Behavior Intervention Program. “It’s all about catching the kids making the right choices and re-enforcing those behaviors.”

She also pointed to the strong team of teachers and support staff that Ambrosier has developed, a team “that really cares about the whole student. They strive to graduate well-rounded individuals that know how to make positive choices in life.”

“As the parent of a special ed student, I am humbled by the amount of time and effort all of the teachers put in to create an individual education program that pushes and encourages my son to be the best he can possible be,” said McGinnis.

Originally from Oregon, Penny Connealy’s first year of teaching was at Anaktuvuk Pass, followed by a year at Nanwalek. She has been at Ninilchik for eight years and currently teaches fifth and sixth grades.

Her involvement at the school doesn’t end there, however, as is common in a small school.

“I’ve coached middle school volleyball and track, chaperoned untold number of dances and proms, am the building test coordinator, after-school tutor and building professional development coordinator,” said Connealy, who also is recognized for arranging numerous field trips. “I’ve taken students rafting on the Kenai, to Peterson Bay, the Seward Sealife Center, Moose Pass fish hatchery, ice fishing, clam digging on Ninilchik Beach, tide pooling on Bishop’s Beach and salmon egg collecting at Anchor River with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to name a few.”

She also keeps the scorebook and clock at various sports events.

Asked what is unique about Ninilchik, Connealy referred to the 100th celebration in 2010. 

“We have many students attending now who are related in some way to the original group of kids from the first class,” she said, also noting the benefit of having kindergarten through 12th grade in one building. “It creates real-life situations where students and staff are part of a community, allowing cohesion and problem-solving building-wide.”

Last year’s senior class had three graduates. They were awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships.

Ajiel Basmayor is part of this year’s eight-student senior class. She began attending Ninilchik School in the seventh grade. To augment the classes Ninilchik offers and to pursue her own interests, Ajiel is enrolled in two online classes: world history and introduction to pharmacy. Her favorite subjects are science and English and she currently has a 4.0 grade point average. Following graduation, she plans to continue her studies, with a focus on either chemistry or biochemistry. 

She likes Ninilchik School’s “intimate class size, where you get a lot of opportunities to talk with your teachers and get caught up if you’re behind. That’s easy to do if you’re in sports,” said Ajiel, who played on Ninilchik’s volleyball team. 

As a member of the student council, Ajiel is a proponent of students connecting with the community. She has volunteered at the library, helped community members collect and dispose of trash and is planning an upcoming opportunity to volunteer at the Ninilchik Senior Center.

Four years since arriving in Ninilchik, Ambrosier has no plans to leave.

“This is a great place to be,” he said. “I can’t predict the future, but I plan on retiring from this district if I’m still doing the job I need to be doing. My wife and I love Ninilchik. I want to see my daughter go to school here.”

McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.

Ninilchik School

Principal: Jeff Ambrosier

Where: 15735 Sterling Highway, Ninilchik

Students: 135 in grades K-12

Of 501 Alaska schools rated by the Alaska School Performance Index, Ninilchik received a four-star ASPI score of 92.69.

• 198 schools in the state received a four-star rating;

• Ninilchik’s score is the 116th highest in the state;

• Ninilchik is one of 23 four-star schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District;

• Ninilchik’s score is the 15th highest score of the 43 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.