College & Workforce Readiness Photo Essay

College Competencies Take Root

By Education Week Photo Staff — September 14, 2015 1 min read
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A teacher helps 8th grader Kristopher Cody plant lettuce in a greenhouse at the STAR School, at the edge of the Navajo Nation near Flagstaff, Ariz.

Nick Cote describes his experiences photographing a school on the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona that integrates cultural experiences, such as working with local farmers, with students’ academic studies to nurture the necessary skills, and motivation to attend college.

In the event of a zombie apocalypse, the students at the STAR School in northern Arizona would be relatively well-off. The K-8 charter school, which lies just outside the boundary of the Navajo Nation and about 30 miles from Flagstaff, is completely off the grid. The school has its own water well, and electricity is provided by solar panels. Students work with local farmers to grow enough organic vegetables to stock the cafeteria’s salad bar twice each day to feed 150 people.

As I photographed students working on a nearby farm, it was clear that all were enjoying the work. While the teachers and farmers did most of the heavy lifting, the students did their fair share of the work. On this particular day they were harvesting tomatoes and chiles, and daring each other to eat the latter was the afternoon pastime. While most schoolchildren spend most of their time indoors, these kids go on field trips each week to learn firsthand how their ancestors thrived in the desert.

If the school were located in a less remote area, organic vegetables and greenhouses on campus would be a novelty, but “food sovereignty,” as the school’s CEO Mark W. Sorensen calls it, is a necessity. In an area the size of West Virginia with about 300,000 people, there are only 10 grocery stores, he tells me. There are convenience stores in some remote areas, but they mostly sell junk food. The Navajo have been farming the desert for centuries and the school’s curriculum taps into the knowledge of the local farming community. Not only do the students take pride in growing their own food, they even claim to love kale.

STAR School 8th graders Mia Stos, left, and Kristopher Cody check the soil in a greenhouse at the school.
Gardening and home economics teacher Tyrone Thompson checks on the school's greenhouses. Local farmers teach children how to grow organic crops in the desert greenhouses.
Students head to class at the STAR School.
A school bus waits for STAR School students as they spend time at the North Leupp Family Farm on the Navajo Nation in Leupp, Ariz.
Ian Salt, an 8th grader at STAR School, carries a harvest of tomatoes and peppers grown at the farm.
STAR School 7th grader Leonardo Gonzalez reacts after tasting one of the hot peppers grown at the farm.
North Leupp Family Farm manager Stacey Jensen helps STAR School students harvest tomatoes and peppers.
STAR School 8th grader Charliegh John helps harvest tomatoes and peppers grown at the farm.
A STAR School student takes a break from harvesting at the farm.

A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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