Navajo Elementary

Jonathan Montgomery, left, and his brother Colin show off their t-shirts supporting Navajo Elementary at a community event in 2018 just months after the school’s campus was closed due to a fire. 

When Scottsdale Unified reopened elementary schools for in-person learning in September, it also marked the first time that students had stepped foot on the Navajo Elementary campus in over two years.

“To be back in our neighborhood, seeing all the kids walk onto campus…it’s just awesome,” Principal Matthew Patzlaff said.

The district was forced to abruptly shutter the Navajo campus, located at Granite Reef and Camelback Road, on Aug. 22, 2018 after an overnight fire in a utility closet caused significant fire, smoke and water damage to a portion of the campus.

The district relocated students and staff literally overnight to its Oak Campus, which was being used as the district’s central kitchen. 

Navajo Elementary remained at the Oak Campus, located three miles away at Oak and 75th streets, until the district paused in-person schooling in March.

“The Oak Campus was great and everyone was awesome but it just wasn’t home, you know?” Patzlaff said.

The return to Navajo’s home campus has been somewhat subdued due to the pandemic, though.

Patzlaff has not been able to show off the new campus to parents or prospective families, so he has taken to the school’s Facebook page to offer virtual tours. The pandemic also cancelled an opening celebration that had been set for April.

“That was going to, really importantly, allow the fifth graders at the time a chance to go see Navajo, because they basically were ousted in third grade and never got to go back,” said Elie Goodman, a member of the Navajo Dads Club.

The fire, complicated by years of low enrollment, put the long-term future of the school in doubt until the SUSD Governing Board approved much-needed repairs and improvements for Navajo, which first opened in 1960.

Months after the fire in October 2018, the Governing Board approved a plan to use funds from the district’s insurance provider to repair the campus and clean up asbestos contamination.

But that money – estimated at around $10 million – only covered cleaning, repairs and asbestos abatement for the parts of campus directly affected by the fire.

Prior to the fire, Navajo was in need of many other structural repairs and was one of a handful of Scottsdale schools being considered by the board for a rebuild using bond money approved by voters in 2016.

“When you put a pipe wrench on those pipes for the chillers, it will literally fall apart like paper mache,” SUSD Director of Facilities & Operations Dennis Roehler said about its aging air conditioning system.

In February 2019 – following lobbying from Navajo parents – the board allocated an additional $4 million in voter-approved bond funds to refurbish the rest of the campus.

That refurbishment left the school’s well-known red brick outer walls intact but included significant improvements to the school’s interior with input from a committee of district staff and parents.

Patzlaff said he and the committee had been working on the revamping the school “non-stop” for two years.

Improvements funded by the additional $4 million included removing asbestos from the remainder of the campus and repairs like replacing the HVAC system and installing energy-efficient windows.

Beyond those infrastructure improvements, Navajo also received a functional facelift to better suit the school’s STEAM curriculum, which science, technology, engineering and mathematics with an emphasis on the arts.

Even the desks, hallways and classrooms themselves received upgrades with new desks in the signature Navajo-red color and smartboards in every room.

“The school is really beautiful,” said Goodman, who got a chance to see it in February before the districtwide shutdown.

Patzlaff said the hallways are also color-coded to help students navigate campus easily and each corridor has its own theme based on a positive value like respect.  

Patzlaff also took steps to preserve the school’s history.

He said staff was able to salvage the annual graduating class pictures from Navajo dating back to 1968 and those photos line the wall in one hallway.

That focus on history is particularly important at Navajo Elementary, a neighborhood institution where many local residents went to school themselves before watching their children – and even grandchildren – also attend the school.

That explains why a group of parents rallied around the school in 2018 and pushed the district to approve the repairs needed to reopen the campus.

“It was a (much-needed) community center in south Scottsdale,” Goodman told the Progress in October 2018. “The thought of that going away devastates me.”

Goodman was part of a group of parents that pushed the district to keep Navajo open and regularly walked the neighborhood in an attempt to boost enrollment.

Goodman said he is grateful to have the opportunity to bring his kids back to the campus.

“I remember after we dropped the kids off, we were like ‘we did it’,” Goodman said. “Can you believe where we’ve been? What’s happened in this two-year period of time and the emotional highs and lows.…”

The approval of repairs and improvements was far from guaranteed after the fire in 2018.

At the time, Navajo Elementary was one of four elementary schools being considered for consolidation after K-5 enrollment fell below 400 students.

The district, combating a decade of enrollment declines, put the schools on growth plans to boost enrollment.

The two-year growth plans aimed at 400 students– the minimum enrollment considered sustainable for elementary schools under Arizona’s current school-funding model, according to former SUSD CFO Jeff Gadd.

But after just one year, the board voted on Nov. 19, 2019 to keep the schools open for now even though two, including Navajo, did not reach the 400 K-5 student goal.

District leaders cited the fire as an extenuating circumstance.

Patzlaff said the move to the smaller Oak Campus hurt enrollment growth efforts. “We were running a school not in our neighborhood as well, so that kind of took a toll on us from the enrollment perspective.”

By the end of last school year, Navajo’s enrollment, including pre-kindergarten classes, was 413.

That number dropped to 352 in August when this school year began but by Oct. 30, it was up to 392 students, making Navajo one of the few schools to increase enrollment during this school year as the number of students attending public schools across the state dropped. 

According to district data, 70 students were enrolled in kindergarten at Navajo as of Oct. 30 after just 51 were enrolled at the end of last school year.

“That is our highest kindergarten enrollment in 12 years,” Patzlaff said.

Goodman said parents worked hard over the previous two years to market Navajo to the community and draw in families with younger students.

“I think there is something to be said to the fact that for the last few years, the parents and principal…have been very diligent about getting in front of families and really doing what we said we had to do to increase enrollment,” Goodman said.

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