A school built on Navajo values

A piece of string takes on the likeness of a Navajo rug pattern with just a few swift twists of the fingers. In a corner of the K-2 classroom, giggling children show off their skill at "spider games." They get to practice only in winter - the season of the Navajo story about Spider Woman giving the gift of weaving.

The students' artful webs are a good metaphor for their education here at the STAR School, a K-8 charter halfway between Flagstaff, Ariz., and the Navajo reservation town of Leupp. The name stands for Service to All Relations - and the mission is to weave the Navajo system of K'e, meaning kinship and relatedness, into the everyday life of the school.

For STAR's founder and director Mark Sorenson, that means incorporating Navajo values into decisions on everything from the school's disciplinary policy to its reliance on solar energy for power.

The 60-plus students are 85 percent native American (mostly Navajos from the reservation), with the rest a mix of white, black, and Hispanic. Giving them a solid grounding in reading, math, science, and other academic subjects is key, Mr. Sorenson says.

But as someone who has taught in Indian communities for decades, he's convinced that inculcating respect, responsibility, and service to the community is the best way to achieve that. These concepts resonate for everyone, he says, although he draws on their centrality in traditional Navajo culture. (Sorenson's background is Scandinavian-American, but he says his heart is with the Navajo people.)

"It's important to us that the kids learn how to get along in the world.... They have to feel good about who they are.... And we want the kids to develop friendships across racial lines," Sorenson says, surrounded in his small office by books, Indian art, and school awards. Test scores are one measure of success, he says, "but the really essential thing is to get kids to be excited about learning."

The idea of interconnection is most visible in the school's discipline policy. A disruptive student typically gets pulled aside for a few hours of character-building lessons with a staff member. There are also opportunities to draw on Navajo peacemaking methods by talking out solutions with peers and staff. One boy who's been here two years after repeated suspensions in other schools is now doing his homework and managing his behavior much better, "but it's been a struggle," Sorenson says.

The four-year-old school is still striving to meet Arizona's measure of "adequate yearly progress" because its attendance rate was just shy of the required 94 percent. But on Arizona's Measure of Academic Progress for 2003-04, 71 percent of students made the expected gains in reading, matching the state average. In math, 88 percent did, beating the state average of 71 percent.

"They are encouraged to make their own observations, as opposed to all learning the same way," says Jacobo Carranza, a recent college graduate and teacher in training. He points to Brandon, in the classroom for third- and fourth-graders, who loves to sketch, and excels at hands-on learning. Brandon also took a leadership role in the school's garden, so the teachers try to link that back to reading and writing, areas where he lags.

"Sometimes we go outside and look at the temperature and how much rain there is, and we write it in our learning logs," Brandon says quietly. "When it was snowing, we put some hay on there so it could keep growing."

"There's a Western tradition of science, and then there's native traditions for observing and interacting with the world," Mr. Carranza says. "STAR is trying to teach these kids, 'Your ancestors are scientists as well, and so are you.' " It's the kind of affirmation Carranza wishes he'd had as a Mexican Indian attending schools in Los Angeles.

The campus created beauty where there once was a junkyard. It has a view of the San Francisco Mountains, a range that is sacred to many Navajos and Hopis. And its solar-powered buildings signal that traditional respect for the environment can go hand in hand with modernity.

Students are encouraged to link their learning to the community. They're currently writing a play about a missionary who averted a war here 100 years ago by communicating between white cowboys and Navajo hunters.

Thanks to a mother who offered to launch Navajo lessons, the school is also doing its part to perpetuate one of the dwindling number of native languages still spoken in the United States. Of about 155 native languages still spoken here, only about 20 have child speakers.

"Our language is slowly dying; it's a shame - our parents are having to learn English so they can communicate with our kids," says Elaine Riggs, the mother and former STAR business manager whose language instruction was so popular with older students that the third- and fourth-graders demanded to have it, too.

With sunlight streaming onto the cafeteria table, four of the older students practice saying the Navajo words for colors, which Ms. Riggs has written out on a giant pad. So far, they've learned the alphabet, numbers, months, and shapes. One boy in the group is half Apache, and now his mother hopes he'll learn that language, too, Riggs says.

And she's not just teaching the native American students. Opposite her at the table is Kelly, a white eighth-grader who claims a bit of Navajo and Apache ancestry. She attended school on the Navajo reservation when she was small, and now is glad to be relearning the Navajo she forgot.

Her friend Nia, also an ethnic mix, says she likes this school better than the prep school she had attended before. In schools where Indians are the minority, she says, "they're usually talking about, 'The Navajo raided places' ... and stuff like that - if they talk about it at all."

Incorporating native culture into the life of the school is not without occasional controversy, Sorenson acknowledges. A white parent recently stopped by to express some concerns about a lesson that included a Navajo prayer in chants and songs. Among Navajo parents who have embraced various nontraditional religions, he says, there are sometimes issues with teaching Navajo, "because so much of the language itself implies values that can be thought of as religious, or certainly spiritual," he says. But the staff strives to frame lessons in ways that aren't specific to any particular religion.

Elmer Gambler embodies some of the cultural blending that's typical in the Navajo community here - which suits him well in his role as coach and home-school liaison for STAR. At 60, he's bilingual, despite his time in a boarding school where he wasn't allowed to speak Navajo. (" 'That's not good for you' - that was the attitude, but we knew different," he says with a wink.)

For students' grandparents, especially, he's a point of connection with the school. Some of them speak only Navajo, and Mr. Gambler understands that they might have a different view of education from what children are encountering today.

"In the native American setting, most learning is by doing. Nobody brings out their chalk and magic marker or puts statistics on the board," Gambler explains. "My grandpa used to set me on his lap and he kind of gets in his own little world and tells stories.... That's how they tell you your values and the traditional way of thinking."

Gambler is also a Mormon, an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and he lauds any kind of spiritual grounding that kids can get. "That's just as important as cognitive thinking or physical growth," he says.

Loren Begay, a Navajo with two daughters at STAR, is another male role model Sorenson recruited. He's a classroom aide and oversees the school's computers, and now he's doing coursework with the thought of becoming a teacher. "My daughter in second grade is reading at a third-grade level," he says, radiating pride. And his older daughter is no longer bored in class as she was at the school in Leupp, he says.

Many of the staff and students are related. Of 14 full-time staff, nine are native American, a high percentage for nonreservation schools. So it's not too surprising that STAR resembles a nurturing family.

At daily meetings, students can talk about whatever's on their minds. At the extreme, that has sometimes meant an outpouring of emotions at having witnessed murder in their families.

"For kids to trust the adults, they have to know the adults really care about how they feel. And at the same time, they have to know that the adults will set limits," Sorenson says.

"It gets so basic. You try to hire people who have a lot of integrity and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make the dream happen. But there are many, many schools that don't have a dream."

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