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STAR School runs on passion and the sun

LEUPP, Ariz. – When Ralph Drake was growing up on Navajo Mountain, Utah, he lived a life so remotely disconnected from the rest of the world he didn’t know anything existed beyond the deeply etched red canyon lands of the northern edge of Navajo.

“I didn’t know there were skyscrapers, trucks, or even other people in the world,” he said as he scanned across the desert marked with dormant volcanoes, “we were very isolated up there.”

Drake is now middle-aged and serves as facility manager for the STAR School, a Navajo Indian charter school located off the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation. He’s been with the school almost since the beginning in 2001.

“I’ve followed Mark around,” said Drake, as he described his long association with one of the premier Indian educators in the country, Dr. Mark Sorensen, who founded and administers the small elementary charter school.

At STAR School, 21 Navajo and one Hopi communicate academically with 111 students in their Native tongue. Five non-Native educators embed their curriculum with Navajo culture and language.

Ralph Drake (left) and Dr. Mark Sorensen have teamed up through the years to bring innovation in place-based education, solar power engineering, and service learning for Navajo elementary students.

“I’m related to all the staff here in the Navajo clanship way, except this one here,” said Drake as he spotted Louva Montour.

As Montour passed, she said, “We can’t be seen together.” Everyone except Montour broke out in laughter. Humor among the staff is common.

It’s difficult to determine which part of Drake’s job generates more pride. He provided intricate details of the technology involved in the solar generation system with its powerful RV batteries and condensers, the new 1,400-foot water well and pumping station, or the computer system he manages and services.

Sorensen has a history of Navajo school leadership going back to the late 1970s. Starting out at Rough Rock Demonstration School with Bob and Ruth Roessel, Sorensen eventually moved to Leupp and created charter schools there and at nearby Little Singer Community School.

He crafted innovative environmental science programs with features in native plant research and solar power technology. And in time, Sorensen built a charter school on the west boundary of the Navajo Nation, using his retirement and personal savings to construct facilities and hire the best Navajo educators in the region. The school received the Governor’s Award for Excellence for Energy Efficiency in 2001 for generating all its electrical power from the sun.

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“It’s about the kids,” Sorenson said. “STAR stands for ‘Service To All our Relations. It’s been clear to me for years that what Navajo students need is meaning to their learning and pride in the products that they create while they’re learning.”

STAR requires students to plan, coordinate and construct elder help projects on the Navajo reservation. Elementary students visit homebound elders to wash their hair and clean their kitchens, install wheel chair ramps, renovate sheep corrals and build outhouses.

In 2006, the school received the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award for its elder assistance.

Recently, the school received a federal grant that mobilized a consortium of five Navajo schools to integrate the Navajo peacemaking process into student counseling and behavior management programs.

“The deeper we delve into the teachings of our Navajo elders on peacemaking, the more we realized the values that are the foundation of peacemaking are universal – and these are respect, responsibility and relationships,” said Sorenson.

This program brings in Navajo Nation peacemakers, mental health professionals and law enforcement officers weekly with direct services to the consortium schools.

“What we’re finding is that the three groups sit down together to coordinate their services to Navajo kids and they haven’t done that before,” Sorensen said.

“The Navajo Nation judicial branch is really committed to reach out to schools to show them how it works. The Nation can see that in the long run, the kids will be the carriers of this cultural tradition.”

Sorensen credited his wife, Kate, with donating their finances to get the school built and started, but once it was underway he used his fingers to name about two dozen caring individuals who shared the vision of educational excellence to keep meeting the quality school standard of Annual Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind.

“It’s the people we have here who are responsible for our success,” Sorensen said.

Rick St. Germaine can be contacted at