All-off-grid school succeeds with sunshine and students

When Mark Sorenson and his ex-wife, Kate, opened America’s first off-the-grid school in the high desert of Northern Arizona, they wanted to teach underrepresented students on the vast Navajo reservation.

There were no utility lines to bring electricity. No pipes to bring water. Most students lived a long way from the campus site. 

Nevertheless, they set up shop on the edge of the reservation. In 2000, they opened STAR Charter School east of Flagstaff with 23 students. They put up their own money for the first building and first solar panel. 

“The state doesn’t provide funding for charter schools to build buildings, so the first building was built with my ex-wife’s and my credit card,” Sorensen said. “Fortunately solar power can be developed a little at a time. So we just built one building at a time. 

“We didn’t have any other choice. We have been off grid since day one.”

School thrives with technology, community projects 

Today, the pre-k through 8th grade campus is filled to capacity at 140 students with waiting lists for some grades. 

It remains the only all off-the-grid public school in the U.S., Sorensen said. All of its energy comes from solar voltaic panels and three wind turbines. Battery installations and a propane generator fill in when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. 

Small class sizes, cutting edge technology and a respect for native culture are its cornerstones. Sustainability and community projects are woven throughout instruction with hands-on applications of science, technology, engineering and math.

STAR’s innovations have gained it recognition.  

Parent and Child Magazine named it one of the top 25 coolest schools in America. Former first lady Michelle Obama invited students from the school to visit the White House Kitchen Garden. The U.S. Department of Education awarded it a Green Ribbon School designation.

Service to all relations 

STAR stands for Service To All Relations and reflects the school’s focus on community. Among some of the projects:

Clean drinking water for families A decommissioned school bus was gutted to create a mobile water analysis lab and filtration unit. Students go out into the community and analyze and filter water for residents. 

Swamp cooler units for grandparents’ homes Students helped engineer and build inexpensive, swamp cooler units called bucket coolers using buckets and aquarium pumps.  

Homegrown food for the cafeteria and elders The school and local organizations are working  to develop resources to encourage local farmers to bring produce to the school to store and use in the cafeteria, as well as donate to elders who need it. 

Challenging path 

Along the way, there have been many challenges, Sorensen said. Technology not only had to be purchased and installed but pass government inspections. Drinking wells had to be dug, and again, pass inspection. Greenhouses also were required to go through a certification process. 

On the education side, students are at risk at many levels. They do not have internet in their homes. Many are latchkey children because their parents have to travel long distances to and from work. There is high unemployment and high school dropout rates on the reservation. 

Data collected over the years shows that the school’s philosophy of sustainability and community is making a difference. 

“We have gathered a lot of data and have found that when students come here and start early and stay here and graduate from eighth grade, those kids tend to do much better academically,” Sorensen said. 

When students go on to high school, they are graduating in higher numbers than students from other schools, he said. 

“When you do something like this, you’re really committed and you have to make sure it succeeds. That is part of our Arizona character. We get out there and do things. We actually create solutions and pull ourselves up.”

To see an aerial view of the campus, go to: STAR

Victoria Harker

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