SHIPROCK — Organizers of the Dream Diné Charter School will see their work come to fruition on Tuesday as the first charter school on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation welcomes students for the first day of school.
Teachers, staff and volunteers were busy on Friday finalizing last-minute details, and work crews moved two of the school's portable classrooms onto a concrete foundation poured earlier in the week. The school will formally celebrate its launch with a grand opening ceremony on Sept. 15.
The school, which will accept kindergartners and first graders its first year, will operate temporarily out of four portable classrooms next to the Shiprock Head Start building behind the Shiprock Chapter House on U.S. Highway 64.
Twenty-one families have one or more students currently enrolled at the school, which can accommodate 45 students its first year. This year, classrooms will mix kindergartners and first graders, and school officials hope to add one grade each year until they create classes through eighth grade.
Formal discussions to establish the school started in January 2011, said the school's director of operations, Gavin Sosa.
Sosa said school staff are working through the Labor Day weekend to get the classrooms and business office ready. Still, he said he's happy the school has come together since the New Mexico Public Education Commission approved its charter in December.
Dream Diné teachers will teach subjects in English and in the Navajo language and will incorporate Diné culture and philosophy of life into their lessons.
"We want children to be connected to their culture, community and families," Sosa said.
While the school will comply with state standards, Principal Roselyn Begay said there is going to be a different approach to education.
"We have our curriculum that is based on the seasonal changes and what's happening with the Navajo people during the different seasons," Begay said. "We believe that learning doesn't just take place within the four-wall classroom. Our classroom is the world out there."
Lessons will be taught in English in the morning, and afternoon classes focusing on culture will be in the Navajo language.
Co-teacher Loren Silver described the style of education as more experiential than what students see at most public schools. Each school day starts with mental and physical activities during an "affirmation" time, followed by a motivational talk in Navajo. And then lessons in subjects such as social studies and science are taught in English.
Silver said the staff wants students to respect their culture and create positive change in the community.
"We want them to think for themselves, to talk for themselves," Silver said.
Teacher Rose Atcitty was recently hired by the school as one of its two teachers. She said she wanted the job after learning about the school's mission to make Diné culture and academics prominent in the classroom. Navajo is Atcitty's first language, and she said if students have the opportunity to learn the language, it could bring more cultural lessons into their homes.
"What I'm thinking is the students, if they learn to speak Navajo, their grandfathers and grandmothers can talk to them," Atcitty said. "They can communicate with them, and they'll get a lot of teachings with them, too."
Last week, a group of students from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., spent three days volunteering at the charter school. On Friday, the students helped prepare the school grounds by pulling weeds near the playground and assembling garden beds.
The students volunteered as part of a freshman orientation program before the start of the fall semester, said Luke Elliot, one of the group's leaders.
"It's been interesting," he said. "It's taking a lot of time to learn about the culture."