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The STAR School, a public charter 25 miles east of Flagstaff that serves mostly Navajo students, has received a $1.3 million federal grant to become more of a trauma-informed school over the next five years.

“Most of our students and their parents, grandparents, have experienced historical trauma in the past and they’re still experiencing a lot of issues,” said Principal Ismail Ozis. “We hope to have a balanced school, providing quality instruction and preparing students well for high school and college, but also having happy students who feel at home, are surrounded by caring adults and are comfortable with who they are.”

He believes the grant, the School Climate Transformation Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will give students more opportunities to accomplish both.

According to the Department of Education website, this grant program awards a total of $42.4 million to 69 school districts nationwide that will benefit from a “multi-tiered system of support for improving school climate,” especially rural schools and those serving members of a federally recognized tribe.

Painted Desert Demonstration Projects, Inc., the district formed to oversee the STAR School’s K-8 and preschool programs, was the only recipient in Arizona, Ozis said.

Because the STAR school has a $2 million annual budget, including grants, this additional sum should make a noticeable difference. School leaders plan to use the grant to implement new educational and behavioral programs, security measures, support staff, and even a 24-foot hogan for classes and special events.

“We want to help our teachers and staff members understand the culture, serve our students in a better capacity and improve our school climate so that we are a culturally sensitive school, which we are, but we still have a long way to go,” Ozis said.

Training in the new behavioral program, which will emphasize positive interventions, will be completed by all school employees. The school is also recruiting a grant coordinator and full-time counselor to improve school climate through work with students and ongoing data collection about attitudes toward school.

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Campus improvements like the creation of a “regulation corner” are also being considered to improve the school’s climate. This space would encourage students to release their jitters or anxieties, allowing them to focus better on class materials, through quiet rhythmic activities like an electronic drum set.

“We already had this personality as a school,” said Mark Sorensen, STAR School founder, director and board president. “We didn’t write this grant and then decide we’re suddenly going to be a more caring school. This is something that has been important to us from the very beginning.”

The school was opened in 2001 with 23 students. It now has 130 mostly Navajo students from Flagstaff and the Navajo Nation. This year the STAR School was awarded a B letter grade rating from the Arizona State Board of Education, up from a D in 2018.

Sustainability and wellness are core components of the school and its curriculum: Its facility is supported entirely by solar and wind power and students are brought on daily hikes and taught to garden in one of several greenhouses on campus. Features of the school property, like an outdoor amphitheater, represent the students and their family clans.

By the end of the five years, Sorensen hopes the public charter becomes a model school for culturally sensitive and trauma-informed learning environments.

“We have to integrate this totally into the system to make it sustainable,” Sorensen said. “Hopefully what we can demonstrate is a way of organizing your resources so that you can have the kind of climate that we hope to have.”

In a letter to the district, Senator Kyrsten Sinema commended the local team on its “integrity and talent” needed to secure this grant.

“This funding empowers the Painted Desert Demonstration Projects, Inc. to be an agent of change for a stronger Arizona — and this is good for everyone,” Sinema wrote.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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