Mark Sorensen was fed up with seeing Native American students score lower on standardized tests, graduate at lower rates and be less likely to pursue post-secondary education compared to other groups of students in the U.S.
He had a vision for a charter school that would provide the Native students in his community a culturally inclusive school environment that would motivate them, so he bought a junkyard.
STAR School, located on the edge of the Navajo Nation near Flagstaff, Arizona, serves 145 K-8 students and challenges their application of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to daily life.
“We found some land that was right near the reservation, but there were no power lines, no water lines and no kind of infrastructure,” Dr. Sorensen, director of STAR School said. “This piece of land was a junkyard.”
Dr. Sorensen used his previous experience living off-grid on a ranch as a baseline to learn how to run a school on solar power. Even though it was a highly complex process, STAR School became the first off-grid, solar and wind powered charter school in the country and has received recognition as a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School.
Schools from across the globe have contacted Dr. Sorensen to use STAR School as a model, including members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya.
The Four Rs – Relationships, Respect, Responsibility and Reasoning
“What’s important to us here is to recognize that this came out of Navajo culture, and it’s what has sustained the people for all these centuries,” Dr. Sorensen said. “We built the sustaining values into how we teach, not just what we teach.”
Dr. Sorensen explained that “peacemaking” is a principle that comes out of the four Rs and is practiced by the staff as well as students.
“After we started teaching and acting according to these values, the incidence of conflicts among students reduced drastically,” Dr. Sorensen said, “and for the past eight years we never had a single fist fight on the campus. I’ve been a principal for over 40 years, and that is incredibly unique.”
This experience at STAR School contrasts with a National Center for Education Statistics report that found American Indian/Alaska Native high school students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property substantially more than Hispanic, African American, White and Asian students.
STEM in the Community
At STAR School, the values of relationships, respect, responsibility and reasoning are used to evaluate real-world problems in the community. As a STEM school, students then use STEM to try to solve them.
“Science means so much more to [students] when they apply it to an actual situation in their community,” Dr. Sorensen said. “The students can be empowered to make the community stronger.”
Students at STAR School helped engineer and build inexpensive, alternative air-conditioning units called bucket coolers using 8 gallon buckets and aquarium pumps. The students were able to install these bucket coolers at their grandparents’ homes, which commonly lacked sufficient cooling for the high desert heat.
The students also help ensure families have fresh drinking water. They test the community’s water quality and then help filter it in a repurposed school bus that has a mobile filtration unit.
“[The students] leave this school going into high school with an idea that science, technology and engineering actually helps their family and their community,” he said. “I know there are some of our graduates who have gone into scientific fields because of what they started learning here.”
The Gift of Being Rural
The STAR School demonstrates the creativity and innovation rural areas bring out of communities and students. Place-based learning introduces and engages students in analytical problem solving while proving students a sense of ownership in their education.
“We have unique gifts. It would be great to see more rural schools linked up to share our gifts, and have people recognize that between 100 and 200 students, there is a wonderful chemistry that can develop for a school that size,” Dr. Sorensen said. “We are a good example of that.”
STAR School is an example of the tremendous possibilities when we rethink school and embrace innovation to focus on students. How are you rethinking school? If not, why not?
Savanna Barksdale was an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.
Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. Check back on Thursdays for new posts in the series. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.