Noodle, a free education search engine that connects users to information and interactive learning tools, included STAR School on its inaugural list of the country’s most innovative schools. STAR, which stands for Service To All Relations, was one of 41 schools selected from a pool of more than 140,000 across the United States.
“There is no best school,” said Suzanne Podhurst, editor-in-chief at Noodle. “What there is are schools that are going to be really great for individual students. There are schools that are doing extraordinary things to change how students learn.”
STAR School, located near the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation, opened its doors in 2001. It serves about 130 students in grades pre-k through 8 and boasts a 96-percent attendance rate.
Mark Sorensen, who co-founded the school with his wife, Kate, spent his career working in Indian education. He envisioned STAR as a “school of excellence” that integrated academic success with sustainable values.
“I was determined to create a school that would demonstrate that both things can be done,” he said. “It’s much better for the students if you have a school that creates an approach that’s rooted in values of the culture and high expectations for academic success.”
From the start, STAR School proved to be innovative by necessity. Sorensen’s primary goal was to be as close as he could be to Navajo Nation but still be on land he could purchase. The result was a location far from the nearest power or water lines and a facility that is powered by 245 solar panels and two wind generators.
“Our only choice was to be solar-powered,” Sorensen said. “Since then, we have become known as the first off-grid, solar-powered elementary school in the country, and of course the first in Indian country.”
Noodle praised STAR for being off the grid. Schools on its list were not necessarily those with the highest test scores or most students going on to Ivy League schools, Podhurst said. Rather, the organization picked schools that are doing promising and innovative things to help students.
“What it’s doing is not only incorporating sustainability with its solar panels and wind generators, but it’s modeling to students what it means to think outside the box and solve problems,” she said. “It’s getting students to think in real-world terms, in sustainable and resourceful ways.”
Noodle also recognized STAR School for “expanding its environmental awareness beyond the planet Earth.” Twice a month, students go to the Coconino Community College campus to use telescopes to look at the stars. Funded through a grant from NASA, the program has allowed students to work with physicists on some of the most cutting-edge scientific discoveries, Sorensen said. That included watching the launch of Mars MAVEN as it was broadcast from Cape Canaveral in 2013.
“We are interested in how Mars exploration fits in with traditional Navajo teachings,” Sorensen said. “We believe that Native knowledge and Western knowledge can enhance and enrich one another. We want students to be exposed to the most recent scientific discoveries and to be aware of the knowledge passed down from their ancestors about the meaning of the movements of the stars.”
Sorensen attributes the school’s success to a focus on Navajo teachings, a worldview that values each individual’s experience and curriculum that engages students with the surrounding communities.
“In the Native way, relationships determine your identity,” he said. “All our of kids are expected to know their four clans, to be able to introduce themselves and how they’re related to everyone else in the school. That creates at atmosphere of warmth, like a family.”
The campus includes several greenhouses where students grow produce that is later served in the cafeteria, Sorensen said. Once a month, students use their home-grown foods to prepare and serve a meal to local elders.
“Our philosophy is to develop students that have meaningful work and meaningful family life,” he said. “It’s important that students are prepared academically, but it’s just as important that students come out with an understanding of how enriching it is to be of service to your community, your people and your school.”
Thirteen-year-old Jacayline David, an eighth-grade student at STAR, has attended the school for four years. An aspiring cardiologist, David said she likes the school’s blend of traditional and scientific teachings.
“This is a rare opportunity to learn about my own cultural background, to learn how to plant and grow crops,” she said. “But I also get to learn about science. We do things here that most schools do not.”