By Susan Hayden –
In designing the new To’hahadleeh Elementary School in Indian Wells with Design Cooperative South-west, Holbrook Schools Superintendent Tim Foist sought out the wishes of the teachers known to be transfer-ring 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, was intended to serve 400 students and was dedicated on July 19, 2002.
Linda Yazzie, who was on the school board then and serves today as board president, 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 Indian Wells 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, but since the 2005-06 school year, IWES has been a Performing Plus school. Also in 2006, the Arizona Department of Education awarded the school the Spotlight on Success. Alfred Clark, president of both the school board and the Indian Wells Chapter when the project was undertaken, 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,” he noted.
Indian Wells Elementary School is built on pillars sunk deep into the soil. The reason for this is the histori-cal 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 surround-ings 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, class-rooms progressed in a circular fashion from the young kindergarteners 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, Yazzie remembers her first look at the prin-cipal’s office. “I thought it’s a good thing he won’t be in here all the time. It’s so small!” she recalled.
The sand and sage colors of the outer walls correspond with the sand and sage of the surrounding high de-sert. The red evokes a connection with Bitahochee, the towering mountain across the highway to the east.
Currently, ten members of the IWES staff have 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. Koerperich. When he was chosen to be assistant superintendent of the district, Dr. McKinnon became the obvious best choice for IWES 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 IWES from Hulet School. He taught fifth grade until he became a read-ing specialist for grades three and up.
Susan Hayden also transferred from Hulet and taught third grade at IWES for three years. At that time, the reading specialist for the school retired, and Hayden was asked to fill her shoes.
Marjorie Mendoza transferred from Park School, and has taught kindergarten at IWES for the entire dec-ade.
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 condi-tion. 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 IWES 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 sched-ule initially was set up and is still in use today. IWES staff members meet 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 IWES. 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 District Business Manager Garry McDowell, “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 life-long learning and reaching their full potential without leaving their cultural identity behind.”
As an exhibit supporting this purpose, a 6’x16’ 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 ob-serving as the Navajo elder worked his design in stages on the wall.
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.
Editor’s note: This series will conclude in the June 27 edition of the newspaper.