By Susan Hayden —
With its first academic year barely finished in 2003, Indian Wells Elementary School 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. The IWES 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, fifty IWES students were participating throughout the year in volleyball, football, cross country, boys’ and girls’ basketball, and co-ed softball. Co-ed soccer was added in 2006. By popular demand, IWES 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 ath-letes 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, one hundred students were participating on various teams through-out 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, 2011-12 saw the introduction of two teams for each, A and B teams. Community members have become involved as coaches. The first Indian Wells Basketball Tournament was held this year.
The facilities needed to accommodate these sports, the track, fields and gymnasium, have been in a state of frequent change over the last 10 years. For the original track, Holbrook School District 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 IWES 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 IWES 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 pre-school teacher with aides taught two sessions per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Three and four 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 IWES. 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. According to McDowell, “They are site-built, stand-alone classrooms.” 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? IWES 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, district head of computer services Ann Gardner stated, “Dial-up would have been faster. We were so limited on what we could do.” After a year, IWES was “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, IWES 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, said Gardner.
CS staff members are unrelenting in their drive to provide up-to-date equipment for student use. They have pur-sued 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, the district 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 play-ground 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, but Jesse Thompson and the Navajo County Board of Supervisors stepped up to support the students at IWES. When Wehrman and Powell received the go-ahead from Thompson, they ordered three different sets of monkey bars, four tetherball poles, a four-hole basketball pole, a small climbing wall and 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. Ac-cording to McDowell, three more basketball hoops are scheduled to be installed this summer.
Teacher leaders at the school became concerned that IWES 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 through-out 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 re-minder of the love and care that is vital for children to learn and grow. The Ralph and Laura Hoffman family of Cen-terburg, 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 “be-loved 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 en-courages students and their families. Dr. Robbie Koerperich, the district superintendent and a former principal at the school, stated, “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.” 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 numer-ous 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 2002, Indian Wells Elementary School has been building a reputation for excellence, not only on the Navajo Nation, but throughout the state. Current Governing Board President Linda Yazzie stated, “The journey of education itself has changed over the years.” 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!