Kira Butler’s plan was to enlist in the Army right out of high school. College? Probably not. But an unusual blend of experiences—chopping wood, harvesting crops for local farmers, playing basketball, and hearing a stream of college hints from her teachers—changed that.
Looking back now, the 18-year-old sees how dozens of threads in her school and family experience wove together to build the skills, conviction, and opportunity to go to college. So she’s packing up this week for an unlikely journey that will trade her bedroom in the Arizona desert for a dorm room near the Canadian border.
The simple act of hauling out a suitcase makes Butler’s college path an unusual one in rural America. With few college options nearby, students in sparsely populated areas enroll in college at lower rates than their nonrural peers, and tend to stick closer to home when they do pursue higher education. Those factors put even the highest-achieving rural students at risk of choosing a college that’s not a good match for them.
The story of how Butler defied those odds reflects the complex dynamics at play when students from rural areas plan their lives after high school. Her mother and father both attended college, so the idea of going herself wasn’t strange to Butler. But she felt a strong call to uphold another family tradition: the honor of military service. Butler’s natural leadership and academic abilities, and her skill as a basketball player, opened the door to selective colleges, but her family’s cultural values emphasize staying close to home. And the family’s modest income didn’t seem to allow for out-of-state choices.
The young Navajo woman faced a daunting achievement landscape, too: Nationally, Native American students have lower high school graduation and college enrollment rates than other student groups, and they fare even worse in her home state of Arizona.
But Butler attended a school that seeks to change those trajectories: the STAR School, a pre-K-8 charter school that serves 130 students from the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation, 25 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz. Eighty percent of STAR’s 8th grade students graduate from area high schools four years later, on par with the national rate for all students. The graduation rate for Native American students is about 70 percent nationally, and 61 percent in Arizona.
STAR School outstrips the national average in sending students to college, too. Seven in 10 of its graduates go to college within a year of finishing high school, compared with 63 percent of all students nationally and fewer than half of Native American students.
It was STAR’s approach to schooling that Butler credits with imparting core strengths she’ll use in college. For one thing, her teachers dropped a lot of hints.
“They were always saying, ‘You can use this in college,’ and ‘You can go to college on a scholarship if you work hard,’” she said. “They put the idea in our heads really early and they were always pushing us.”
Building Early Awareness
Getting a jumpstart on college thinking was a key principle when Mark W. Sorensen and his wife, Kate, co-founded STAR School 15 years ago. For many years, he had been a teacher and principal in schools serving Navajo students, and was frustrated by their chronically low levels of achievement. The couple believed that integrating Navajo cultural values into a rigorous program of study could offer the students a more meaningful education with better results.
They set out to create a school that would capitalize on their students’ strengths and engage them in hands-on, community-based projects designed to solve local problems. STAR—the acronym stands for Service To All Relations—is located in a low-income community where poor diets and high rates of diabetes are big problems, Sorensen said. So the school built partnerships with local farmers, who bring students into their fields to plant and harvest, and also come to the school to work with the students in their greenhouse. The children extend the academic piece of the work by studying botany, agriculture, nutrition, and health.
Unmet Promises is an occasional series examining the challenges facing disadvantaged students who show academic potential.
“We want our kids to come out feeling they are totally relevant and have the power to impact their community,” Sorensen said. “Often [for Native American students], college prep is weak. Many kids come from homes on dirt roads without indoor plumbing or consistent electricity. College can be a big cultural leap, so it’s important to build on the asset of the kids’ strong connection to place, family, and culture.”
That resonates with Butler. The experience of working on the farms and in the greenhouse—and doing other service-learning projects for elders in her community—stayed with her as she applied to college.
“Chopping wood, fixing fences, working in the greenhouse, it was hard work,” she said. “And when I had to do all that paperwork to apply to college, it was hard. But I felt like I had this connection to nature, to the place I come from, and that helped me know I could do it.”
Teaming Up With College
STAR School built a partnership with Northern Arizona University, too, loading all 130 students onto buses to the Flagstaff campus, to demystify college and plant the idea in little heads early. Whole-school trips became financially impossible, though, and now the partnership focuses on STAR’s middle school students. NAU film students visit STAR, widely known for its filmmaking program, regularly to help students make movies about their community, and the students join their college mentors on campus each week to edit the films on the campus’s computers.
Mia Stos participated in that partnership last year, and it opened up new vistas. As she begins 8th grade, the 13-year-old is looking ahead with a newfound clarity.
She had thought she’d become a welder, since she enjoys making metal repairs at her family’s corral. But Mia fell in love with filmmaking, and working with the college students made a higher-education option seem possible.
“I thought I’d just get through high school and get a job, but I changed my life plan to go to college,” she said. “The college students were like, ‘There are colleges that can help you do this.’ And I was like, ‘You have to get through college?’ And then it was like, ‘OK, I can do that.’”
Managing Family Needs
Mia is starting to research colleges that have good filmmaking programs, but she’s already worried about leaving her family. Her parents depend on her to do most of the cooking and cleaning for her three younger siblings, and to be sure they’re awake and off to school each day. She also feels the pressure to earn money as soon as possible to help her parents. She isn’t sure how all those pressures will affect her college aspirations.
Carol Placer, STAR School’s guidance counselor, says most of her students juggle similar responsibilities in a place where even the local community college is 25 miles away.
“Finding jobs and housing on the reservation is very challenging, yet moving away puts students in conflict with their loyalty to their family and their desire to support them,” she said. “If you’re even thinking about college, you probably aren’t thinking about making a choice based on your interests, where you’d like to live, or even where you could get a scholarship. You’re thinking about being able to go home, take care of younger siblings, feed the animals, and make dinner for your family.”
Butler’s mother, Pauline Butler, certainly didn’t envision her daughter trekking 1,400 miles away to go to college. But with the confidence and academic record she brought to high school, and the passion and talent she discovered there for basketball, college scouts came calling. Offers rolled in from North Dakota, Arizona, Iowa. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire reached out to her.
Butler said she didn’t see those places as good cultural or academic fits; she wanted a school that had a stronger Native American presence. So when Northwest Indian College, on the Lummi reservation in Bellingham, Wash., offered her a big basketball scholarship, she accepted. It didn’t hurt that her half-sister lives nearby.
“She’s my youngest and my only girl,” Pauline Butler said. “It would have been different if she was a boy. I envisioned her staying home with me and going to the local college here, so she would continue to stay on the land I purchased, which is something close to my heart.”
The factors that play into rural students’ future plans vary from place to place. Elisabeth Davis discovered that as she and two fellow researchers examined the college-going patterns of rural teenagers in Indiana.
Unlike rural students nationally, those in Indiana had as good an academic preparation as their nonrural peers, enrolled in college at similar rates, and were as well-off financially, but they were more likely to choose two-year colleges. That suggested to Davis and her colleagues that in some places, factors such as the culture of a student’s high school play a greater role in college matching than poverty or poor academic preparation, which are often key forces when students choose colleges less rigorous than they’re capable of.
“We can’t generalize,” Davis said in an interview. “Rural America is not homogeneous.”
That is what led the STAR School to craft its “place-based” approach to education. And it guided Northern Arizona University’s thinking as it built an array of support programs for aspiring and incoming Native American students. Teenagers can be paired with NAU students to get a taste of college while they’re still in high school. Rising freshmen can take advantage of summer-bridge courses to build their academic skills before they enter.
As freshmen, they can participate in a yearlong, Native themed-seminar that pairs them with an adult mentor and a peer advisor for academic, financial, and social/emotional support as they navigate the shift to campus life. Participants do community service projects, too. Last year, they worked at STAR School to nurture sustainable gardens and build a bread oven, said Catherine Talakte Taylor, the director of Native American student services at the university. Throughout a Native American student’s four years at NAU, there are programs and events keyed to Native themes.
“It’s very much a win-win situation,” Taylor said. “Our students found it meaningful to work with the younger students. And the STAR students got help with their projects, and saw that there were role models, that there is someone who looks like you and has gone through something similar to you, [and] they can do it.”
Those kinds of experiences not only changed Mia Stos’ future plans, they made her feel more in charge of her destiny.
“Mostly, I’ve been the kind of person who only worries about what I’m going to do today. I never thought about what was ahead,” she said. “But now it feels kind of good because I know what I’m going to do. I’m not going to just sit here and wonder what’s going to happen. I’m going to try and make it happen.”
Library Intern Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research assistance.
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as Ariz. School Forges College Path for Rural Students