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7/17/2012 9:59:00 AM
Indian Wells Elementary School celebrates 10-year anniversary
What a difference a decade makes
All students gather for an all-school picture in April, 2007. Submitted photo
All students gather for an all-school picture in April, 2007. Submitted photo
Those who served the entire first Decade at IWES (from left to right) include Marjorie Mendoza, Jeri McKinnon, Sue Hayden, Jon Paul Skevington, Laura Tsosie, Andrea Williams, Dorraine Lester, Sandra Salabye-Slimko and (not pictured-Nita Black, Kim Yazzie). Submitted photo
Those who served the entire first Decade at IWES (from left to right) include Marjorie Mendoza, Jeri McKinnon, Sue Hayden, Jon Paul Skevington, Laura Tsosie, Andrea Williams, Dorraine Lester, Sandra Salabye-Slimko and (not pictured-Nita Black, Kim Yazzie). Submitted photo
Susan Hayden
Special to the Navajo-Hopi Observer

HOLBROOK, Ariz. - Who could have guessed the changes to be wrought at Indian Wells Elementary School (IWES) since its inception 10 years ago?

In a recent chat with Linda Yazzie, current president of the Holbrook School Governing Board (HUSD), she recalled that for several years many parents within the Navajo Reservation portion of the Holbrook School District had wanted a school to be built closer to their homes. The crowded bus ride into town and the limited bus routes were extremely inconvenient for the children and their families. Concerned parents discussed the idea that a new high school might meet their needs. However at that time, the thought of two high schools in one small rural school district raised the concern of rivalry instead of unity. They agreed that we must be in harmony in educating our children.

More busses and expanded bus routes eased the problem of getting kids into town for school, but the amount of time involved continued to make going to an HUSD school an obstacle for many children and their families. In 1991, Eula C. Yazzie, a Navajo Nation council delegate, persuaded Richard Begay to return from Phoenix and help her work toward the establishment of a school at Indian Wells. Because land had already been set aside in 1974 by the Navajo Tribe for educational development in the area, Begay began communication with tribal leaders in Window Rock for the necessary permissions to build. He also made contact with HUSD for assistance in launching an elementary school at Indian Wells. A grant of $45,000 from the Navajo Tribe in 1997, directed by the Southwest Public School Steering Committee of Indian Wells, allowed preliminary archeological surveys and ethnographic studies to be conducted, even though funding for the building itself had not yet been found.

Because extended bus rides to school are a common problem in rural areas of our state, the Arizona School Facilities Board (ASFB) established a "geographic exception" policy in 2000, which made funds available for new school construction through the Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today) program. Alfred Clark, Indian Wells Chapter House president at the time, recalls that Dr. Phil Geiger, then-director of the ASFB, and other representatives traveled up to the Indian Wells chapter house on Oct. 30, 2000, to hold a public hearing, with the purpose of deciding whether a new school was warranted for students in this sparsely populated area. Jesse Thompson of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors was among those who spoke on behalf of the people in support of the proposed school.

Clark remembers, "The weather was good when the state people traveled up from Phoenix, but I think the project was still unsettled when the meeting ended and they left to go back. But the weather had turned bad. It was snowing and the livestock was on the road (because the land was all open range). The next day, they called me and said that the decision was a no-brainer. Indian Wells needed the school."

"I think we got help from above for this miracle," said Begay.

Heartened by having money for building, other obstacles were faced with hope and confidence. Yazzie, called a "driving force" by Begay, obtained a grant to find a solution to the problem of the shifting low ground in the vicinity, as well as that of getting potable water to the area designated for the school. A water line between Greasewood and Dilkon already existed; the issue was running a connection one quarter of a mile from the established line to the school site. According to Begay, the Babbitt family of Flagstaff owns land between the water line and the school location.

"They were very generous to us," said Begay, allowing the water line across their property in support of the school. The state of Arizona gave its approval of the water line which was then endorsed by the Navajo tribe, leading to the granting of a 75-year lease to the HUSD. Clark commented that Begay seemed to gain the necessary clearances "in record time," affirming that the school was meant to be. After talking with Begay, it appears that record time involves years of record-breaking effort laying groundwork and serving as liaison between the council, various state agencies, school districts, families, and other interested parties.

Groundbreaking for the new To'hahadleeh Elementary School took place on Oct. 19, 2001. Because the medicine man was unable to attend the program, Thompson was asked to give the invocation. He was handed a shovel for, in his words, "planting the seed for new growth." He handed the shovel off to a child who attended the ceremony and who dug the first spade of dirt. Governing board members of HUSD3, the first Arizona public school district to build a school on a tribal reservation, were Alfred Clark, president; Merrill Young, vice-president; and Ferral Knight, Linda Salabye Yazzie, and Sandra Bradley, board members. Richard Begay served as Special Liaison throughout the entire process of establishing the school. Timothy Foist was the district superintendent and Mary Koury the assistant superintendent. In designing the new school with Design Cooperative Southwest, Foist sought out the wishes of the teachers known to be transferring out there, resulting in a building with good-sized classrooms and lots of natural light. The structure, built by Okland Construction Company of Salt Lake City. The school was intended to serve 400 students and was dedicated on July 19, 2002.

Yazzie related that initially the Navajo families were understandably keen on receiving "equity in teacher quality" to institute a no-nonsense, solid academic program. This resulted in each of the Holbrook town schools choosing teachers to transfer to IW to provide an experienced base for the new facility. Robbie Koerperich of Kansas was hired to take the reins as his first principalship. In August, 2002, 174 students arrived for the first classes held at Indian Wells Elementary School. There were only two sections for each grade. The first two years the school was not rated on the AZ Learns Elementary Achievement Profile, however since the 2005-2006 school year, IWES has been a Performing Plus school. Also in 2006, the Arizona Department of Education awarded the school the Spotlight on Success.

Clark confidently states that the school has a very good reputation on the Navajo Nation. "It's very unique; we're very competitive out there in the education world."

Indian Wells Elementary School is built on pillars sunk deep into the soil. The reason for this is the historical tendency of the leased land to flood. The pillars guarantee the durability of the foundation. The architectural design, layout, and colors of the school are intended to relate with the natural surroundings and traditions of the Navajo people. The main door faces east toward the rising sun. Upon entering, you will find yourself in the foyer which has eight sides, as does the traditional Navajo hogan. On the floor is displayed the four traditional colors of the primary directions, white, blue, yellow, and black. Turning left, you will find that the classrooms follow the flow of life. When the school began, classrooms progressed in a circular fashion from the young kindergartens all the way around to the oldest students in the school, and returned to the foyer. The centrally-located multi-purpose room serves as a gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium.

Although most classrooms are large with ample natural light, Linda Yazzie remembers her first look at the principal's office. "I thought it's a good thing he won't be in here all the time. It's so small," she said. The sand and sage colors of the outer walls correspond with the sand and sage of the surrounding high desert. The red evokes a connection with Bitahochee, the towering mountain across the highway to the east.

Currently, 10 of the staff of IWES has been there since its inception. Jeri McKinnon originally was chosen to transfer from Park School to teach second grade. She also served as a sixth grade teacher, a reading specialist, and an instructional specialist until she became head teacher under Dr. Robbie Koerperich. When he was chosen to be assistant superintendent of HUSD3, Dr. McKinnon became the obvious best choice for IW principal. Her prior involvement with the programs and culture of the school strengthened their sustainability and ensured a smooth transition. Jon Paul Skevington transferred to IW from Hulet School. He taught fifth grade until he became a reading specialist for grades three and up. Susan Hayden also transferred from Hulet and taught third grade at IW for three years. At that time, the reading specialist for the school retired, and Mrs. Hayden was asked to fill her shoes. Marjorie Mendoza transferred from Park School and has taught kindergarten at IW for the entire decade. Sandra Salabye-Slimko and Andrea Williams have continuously anchored the second grade team.

Head custodian Laura Tsosie has worked diligently for 10 years to preserve the school's like-new condition. Visitors often comment on how well-maintained the facility is. Library aide Nita Black remembers being trained that first year by a retired librarian from town. Many IW students have benefitted throughout this time from the assistance of health aide Dorraine Lester. Bus driver Kim Yazzie began as a bus monitor in 2002 and has faithfully transported students to and from IWES and on various field trips for the entire decade.

The teachers make the 70-mile round-trip to school each day in district authorized vehicles. A time schedule initially was set up and is still in use today. IW staff meets at the district office by a certain time each morning. A schedule for fueling the vehicles, which has evolved over time, ensures fairness for every commuter. Many people cannot imagine any benefit from such a commute; however, some of the teachers credit this daily travel for the camaraderie and solidarity experienced by much of the staff of IW. Teachers often use the time for reading and grading assignments or for discussing pertinent educational issues. Teachers also have expressed appreciation for the time to "gear up" and "gear down" to prepare mentally for school or home. Since 2005 when the highway to school was fenced, there is less likelihood of being slowed by sheep, cattle, or horses on the road, although watching the animals remains a charming element of the drive.

People often wonder why IWES students only attend school from Monday through Thursday. According to Garry McDowell, HUSD business manager, "The four day week was set up in response to how the people live in such a remote, rural setting." The families preferred a longer day, shorter week so that they could plan other elements of their family lives, such as grocery shopping and even buying a pair of jeans, which require travel time to distant communities.

Indian Wells Elementary School operates with a purpose that is clearly reflected in its mission statement: "In a safe environment at Indian Wells, we will encourage and challenge all students to be committed to lifelong learning and reaching their full potential without leaving their cultural identity behind." As an exhibit supporting this purpose, a 6X16 foot mural by renowned Navajo artist Chester Kahn graces the wall outside the school library. Kahn painted this mural over a six month period in 2009. He said it will be his final mural and called it a labor of love for the Navajo children. Students often sat across the hall, quietly observing as the Navajo elder worked his design in stages on the wall. Mr. Kahn, renowned for his series of murals in Gallup, N.M., has been honored at the Heard Museum and is a recipient of the 2011 Arizona Indian Living Treasures Award.

With its first academic year barely finished in 2003, IWES expressed a readiness to add sixth grade so that the fifth graders could transition to junior high in a familiar environment without the extended bus ride that attending Holbrook Junior High School would entail. This became all the more important because the option for after-school activities increases for sixth graders, particularly with sports. In fall of that year, junior varsity football, co-ed basketball, and volleyball within the Navajo Area Junior High League (NAJHL) were offered to the sixth graders. In order to have enough players to make the teams, fifth graders were included in the sports. The willingness of teachers and other staff members to volunteer provided the first team coaches. Indian Wells Junior Varsity Football Roadrunners brought home the first of many championship sports trophies that first semester of play.

The number of boys and girls participating in sports increased with each succeeding year. By 2005, 50 IW students were participating throughout the year in volleyball, football, cross country, boys' and girls' basketball, and co-ed softball. IWE included co-ed soccer in 2006. By popular demand, IWE began allowing fourth graders to participate in cross country in 2007. In 2008 the school began hosting the Spring Sports Award Ceremony, a tradition to this day, during which all athletes receive a medal or trophy for their involvement in the school's athletic performance. The next semester the first Fall Sports Awards Ceremony was held. By 2010 100 students were participating on various teams throughout the year. This included the addition of a Pee-Wee division for cross country which encouraged schoolchildren eight years old and younger to run.

In this 10th year of Indian Wells Elementary School, nearly 120 students and 14 coaches were involved in NAJHL play. Due to the increased participation in every sport, 2011-2012 saw the introduction of two teams for each, A and B teams. Community members have become involved as coaches. 2012 also boasts the First Annual Indian Wells Basketball Tournament.

The facilities needed to accommodate these sports, the track, fields, and gymnasium, have been in a state of frequent change over the last ten years. For the original track, the HUSD maintenance staff simply dragged a path for PE students to use. It has since been lengthened and improved to meet NAJHL requirements. The early football field was also made by dragging to remove the overgrowth and level the ground. Students threw rocks to the side so that they could play. A backstop was added to the football field so it could perform double duty as a softball field. Also, benches were installed on the sidelines for the teams and a few nearby for the fans. When IW began a soccer program in 2006, another field was dragged and prepared for league play. The gymnasium, also used as a cafeteria and auditorium, displays two large murals, one supporting the Character Counts program at the school and the other flaunting a huge Indian Wells Roadrunner logo. After several years of keeping track of sports scores with a flip chart, the gym now sports an electric scoreboard and enough bleachers to seat 200 people in a space that was planned for 80. Yes, it is tight, but IW Roadrunner fans are enthusiastic about their teams.

The neighboring communities of Dilkon, Jeddito, White Cone, Greasewood and others have shown their support for the school at Indian Wells by enrolling their children in ever-increasing numbers. Enrollment this 10th year reached 486 students. Another element in the rise in enrollment is the addition of preschool in August, 2008. At that time, only one preschool teacher with aides taught two sessions per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Three and 4-year-olds were blended into classes, and others lingered on a waiting list for placement. This situation changed in August, 2010, when another preschool teacher was employed at IW. With two early childhood instructors, education of the threes and fours was separated into different classrooms with two sessions each, morning and afternoon. There is still a waiting list.

To accommodate the need for more classrooms, an additional classroom building was erected behind the main structure in 2009. Since then, four more supplementary classroom buildings have been built at the school, one of which boasts a desperately-needed set of restrooms and a music room. A sixth classroom building is being planned. These buildings are not portables or modular.

"They are site-built, stand-alone classrooms," said McDowell. This space not only makes room for the additional students but is a necessary part of an effort to maintain an effective student to teacher ratio.

What school these days can operate effectively without computer technology, hardware, software, and a dedicated group of technicians to keep it all running smoothly? IW has all that. The school opened in 2002 using a simple satellite system because the location was so remote. Even though the school had a smaller student-to-computer ratio than the rest of the district, HUSD head of computer services Ann Gardner said, "Dial-up would have been faster. We were so limited on what we could do."

After a year, IWES "upgraded" to 2 MBS, still somewhat inadequate for school internet access. But Computer Services (CS) continued improving the classroom environments by acquiring a Smart Board, projector, document camera, and amplification system for each room. With greater access, IW students and teachers began using technology more effectively for instruction. Class sets of small laptops for the sixth grade were also installed.

Finally, the district was able to make arrangements with the Frontier company and paid to have fiber optic cable run to the school from Greasewood. This increased bandwidth to 10 MBS, "an outstanding move" for improving internet access at the school, says Mrs. Gardner. CS is unrelenting in their drive to provide up-to-date equipment for student use. They have pursued grants and other funding so that classrooms can have student response systems, airliners, iPads and iPods for 21st century instruction. Plans are being discussed to endow every classroom third through sixth with individual laptops. Along with the cutting edge equipment, HUSD will continue professional development to ensure that teachers are able to maximize the effectiveness of these technological tools for the district's students on the Navajo Nation.

The playground is a vitally important component of an elementary school. In 2002 there were two swing sets, two jungle gyms with slides, and four basketball hoops at IWES. Because of the growth in enrollment each year, the playground became inadequate. Kindergarten teachers Debbie Wehrman and Suzanne Powell decided to try to get more outside equipment for the students to play on at recess. At that time two years ago, the school district did not have the resources to provide for the need, however, Jesse Thompson and the Navajo County Board of Supervisors stepped up to support the students at IW. When Mrs. Wehrman and Mrs. Powell received the go-ahead from Mr. Thompson, they ordered three different sets of monkey bars, four tetherball poles, a four-hole basketball pole, a small climbing wall, two large shade ramadas, as well as benches, picnic tables, and a trash container. This new equipment has been fully utilized every day since its installation. Grateful students sent a poster-size thank you card to the Board of Supervisors. According to Mr. McDowell, three more basketball hoops are scheduled to be installed this summer of 2012.

Teacher leaders at the school became concerned that the IW students were not eating enough fresh food. Much of their diet consisted of highly processed food items. So Wehrman and Powell put their heads together to write and submit a grant proposal. To qualify, it was necessary to demonstrate the need using statistics from the federal free and reduced lunch program and submit a plan of implementation. As a result, in 2009 IWES was awarded the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant. Since then, Indian Wells students have received fresh fruits or vegetables twice a week throughout the school year. The school has been chosen for this grant three years in a row and recently received notice of its fourth year of acceptance. Navajo County Nutrition Services works with the school to present and provide lessons in healthy eating to individual classes.

The landscape of the school has been enhanced within the last two years by the planting of a variety of deciduous trees and installation of an irrigation system to support them. These trees contribute to an environment that is a reminder of the love and care that is vital for children to learn and grow. The Ralph and Laura Hoffman family of Centerburg, Ohio, conferred this bequest in honor of their daughter Tracy, who brought her passion for living to IWES in August, 2007. For three years, Tracy instructed and cared for first grade students at the school. Her colleagues also valued her friendship, wisdom, and generosity. Although an auto accident took Tracy away, the memory of this "beloved Rez chick" is a significant facet of the history of Indian Wells Elementary School.

What a delight it is to see former students return to the school during family nights. Many feel grateful to have attended IWES. According to a recent survey of former students, all respondents felt that they were pretty well or very well prepared for junior high and high school. The environment at To'hahadleeh Elementary School supports and encourages students and their families.

"Indian Wells Elementary School is a special place for me. It was a new adventure, we worked hard to establish trust and build a team that included the families," said Koerperich. He related an anecdote of a child whose family considered it necessary for personal reasons to withdraw him from the school. The family was halfway to another town to enroll him in a different school when they turned around, drove back to Indian Wells, and re-enrolled him that same day. "He just doesn't want to leave," they stated.

Where else in the Holbrook School District can a student look up from her work and see a cow placidly gazing through the window? How many teachers can say that they had to be careful to avoid the horses roaming across the parking lot? Travelers have mistaken the eye-catching school for a hotel or casino and express surprise at the presence of such an attractive educational facility in such a rural setting. But it is the result of grand effort on the part of numerous individuals who were willing to make a priority of establishing a school at Indian Wells. Without their toil and persistence, this "miracle" could never have happened.

Since August of 2002, Indian Wells Elementary School has been building a reputation for excellence, not only on the Navajo Nation but throughout the state.

"The journey of education itself has changed over the years," said Yazzie.

With that realization, and having effective leadership at the helm and empowering teacher leaders in the classrooms, To'hahadleeh Elementary School is on course to fulfill its mission of creating lifelong learners while respecting the cultural identity of the Navajo students. With a solid social and academic base, these individuals are the future of the Navajo Nation as well as the 21st Century global civilization. What difference does a decade make? At Indian Wells Elementary School, it has made a great deal!

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