STAR School’s Story

The educational landscape for Native American students has changed dramatically within the last few decades, as tribes have sought to take ownership of an education system that previously disconnected them from their culture. Learn how a small Arizona charter school, which straddles the edge of the Navajo Nation, strives to interweave its academic focus with traditional Navajo values.

Here is their story.

MELDING CULTURE WITH CURRICULUM

STAR School’s education philosophy is grounded in relationships, culture and a focus on sustainability intrinsic to local beliefs.

But the school’s philosophy is not just a statement posted on a website or the focus of a few classroom lessons.

It is seen in the arrangement of the campus buildings, which reflect the area’s Navajo culture, the greenhouses that abut classrooms, the traditional Native American stove that sits on campus, and the wind turbines and solar panels that face toward the expansive, rolling hills surrounding the northern Arizona school.

The philosophy is felt at the Monday morning gatherings, where every student and staff member shakes each other’s hand in an effort to establish relationships and set the tone for the rest of the week.

The school’s approach is even reflected in its name, which stands for Service to All Relations.

STAR, a K-8 charter school that straddles the edge of the Navajo reservation about 25 miles northeast of Flagstaff, strives to interweave its academic focus with those traditional Navajo values.

For school founder and CEO Mark Sorensen, this integration of culture and academics is not only a sound education practice, it’s essential to the future success of the school’s students.

“We wanted to be an example of how the school is providing an excellent education and connecting with culture, reaffirming that culture has great lessons to provide,” said Sorensen, who co-founded the school with his wife Kate about 15 years ago after working in other public schools that traditionally served Native American students.

The United States has a history of cultural assimilation and an organized effort to disconnect Native students from their culture. When the Sorensen’s moved to the area in the ‘70s, they noticed a school system that did just that.

“For many decades, up until very recently, schools were actively used to sort of get Native kids to forget about their culture,” he said. “We decided to start this school and ground it in sustainable Navajo cultures.”

Sustainability influences every aspect of the school.

STAR School is completely off the grid, with the school generating its electricity, pumping its own water and relying on a satellite signal for its Wi-Fi. Solar panels and wind turbines dot the campus, and a water well sits behind the administration building.

School staff teaches students how to grow their own vegetables, a significant skill for children who live among a population with a high rate of diabetes, and in an area with a lack of supermarkets and other options for healthy food.

STAR also emphasizes respectful relationships and community service as a key component of the school. Service projects have included preparing traditional Navajo meals for elders on Thanksgiving, chopping wood for neighbors and cleaning yards for those that can’t.

The school has two teaching assistants who are referred to as “Grandmas” and serve as elders and matriarchs for the students, which is reflective of Navajo culture.

STAR’s innovations and cultural emphasis has garnered praise and recognition from media outlets and organizations around the country.

Last year, Noodle, a comprehensive website for education information and resources, identified STAR as one of 41 innovative schools around the country that take a creative approach to education.

In 2012, the charter received a Green Ribbon designation from the U.S. Department of Education for its sustainability practices.

Most importantly, the school has developed a reputation for preparing its students for high school and beyond.

About 80 percent of former STAR students graduate from high school in four years, while 70 percent of the students attend college within a year of graduating.

One of those former students, Kira Butler, attended Northwest Indian College on a basketball scholarship after graduating from Flagstaff High School in May 2015. Unfortunately, the college reduced its basketball scholarships, and Butler, 19, could not attend school without one.

Taking a lesson from STAR, Butler did not give up. Following in the footsteps of her parents who are military veterans, Butler enlisted into the U.S. Air Force this year.

Butler credited STAR for teaching her lessons that extended beyond the classroom.

“They actually go outside of the classroom and, if you want to learn about gardening, they teach you, and the elders here know a lot about it,” she said.

She developed into a fledgling filmmaker at the school, collaborating with a classmate to make a couple of documentaries highlighting Navajo life and culture, including a stop-motion animation film that told a traditional Navajo story.

Her work garnered a first place award in the Arizona student film festival, as well as trips to Italy, Seattle, Austin and Washington D.C.

“We’re one big family,” she said. “The whole community supports you and they encourage you to try and do better,” she said.