Marisa Kiefaber: Desert Education

star schoolAlong Leupp Road lies an unusual sight. Thin silver poles rise above the juniper trees and shrubs, their blades whirling in the breeze. As we turn our trusty van off the main road a slanted blue roof comes into view and we see dark reflective rectangles lining the landscape’s backdrop. This first sight of the STAR School is quite fitting since the small wind turbines and solar panels are responsible for powering the whole school. The STAR School demonstrates a system of cultural adaptation and tight feedbacks by diverging from today’s norms of energy use and providing alternative education for locals.

At the turn of the century, Mark and Karen Sorenson began cultivating the idea of founding an elementary school on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. The couple was not satisfied with the performance of the urban public school system and wished to find another form of education for their own children. After much logistical planning and development, the school opened its doors fourteen years ago. The charter elementary and middle school lies just a few miles west of the Navajo Nation Reservation and is currently the largest and most sophisticated school run completely by alternative energy. Solar and wind power supply all energy needs on campus meaning that the STAR School is completely “off the grid.”

When asked why the school chose to work off the grid, the facilities manager stated that they had no choice, the nearest power line is at least six miles away. The reasoning behind using alternative energy sources may be just that simple, but as our two day visit continued, I got the idea that solar and wind energy use had more to do with modern concerns regarding fossil fuels. It seems to me that the STAR School is consciously adapting and changing in response to stresses such as fossil fuel shortages and negative environmental ramification.

By collecting wind and solar energy, the school alters their community system to create tight feedbacks. If students or staff leave lights on unnecessarily, for example, they use up stored energy that cannot be used at another time.  If there is a streak of cloudy days without collected solar energy then supplies become low and consequences of wasted fuel can be easily understood. This quick chain of events linking actions to outcomes depicts the tight feedbacks in the STAR School community. The close connection to energy sources provides those involved with direct incentive to conserve energy.

The founders established STAR School in response to a vacant niche in educational options for their children. The Flagstaff public school that their kids would have attended was known for large classes, a violent atmosphere and subpar education. Instead of joining the urban school system, Mark and Karen adapted by filling the void with a unique approach to education. The STAR School now provides quality and alternative education for about 130 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with a demographic consisting of 97% Navajo. Another educational void exists in the schools on the Navajo Reservation; they tend to lack funding and, therefore, opportunities. The Star School adapts to this need by providing an engaging and productive education for many Navajo youth.

The name “STAR School” stands for ‘Service to All Relations’ and the community lives by the Four R’s: Respect, Responsibility, Relationship and Reasoning. Students can utilize their Four R’s in regards to being involved in an off the grid community. They use conscious reasoning to respect the relationship between people and the earth. This fosters a sense of responsibility to protect our planet as they demonstrate their adaptation of alternative energy usage. Obviously, the Four R’s can be interpreted in many different ways, but I find them to align nicely with the school’s choice of solar and wind power.

The STAR School has adapted to the need of quality education by providing hands-on learning about progressive ideas. A very visible example sprouts from the earth all over campus: gardens growing vegetables, herbs and flowers play an important role in the students’ education. Middle schoolers conduct science projects about efficient greenhouse building while fifth graders learn about the sun’s heat and the power of bacteria by creating a compost collection. Students of all ages weed the gardens regularly and harvest vegetables bi-weekly to be eaten that day at lunch. STAR School creates tight feedbacks in their food system by growing their own vegetables and purchasing other foods from the nearby reservation. Again, these feedbacks connect community members to the trials and successes of the food system.

The idea of an off the grid charter school seems ideal in today’s world, so why are there not more of them? Many obstacles stand in the way of quality education unfortunately. From the STAR School example, it seems that the key to overcoming money shortages, political opposition and many other challenges in educational development or really any situation is create adaptation. If your stranded off the grid, why not benefit from the sun?

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