Nearly two months after damage from an overnight fire shut down the Navajo Elementary School campus indefinitely, the school is getting back into the swing of things at a new location thanks to the effort of teachers, administrators, staff, parents and the Scottsdale community.
“Now I feel like we’re getting into a pretty good groove,” Navajo Principal Matthew Patzlaff said. “We’re getting back at it and we’re here and we’re really truly getting back to educating kids.
Just getting to this point took a monumental effort from everyone involved.
“It’s amazing to see what we’ve done – to open up this school in about 24 hours is phenomenal,” said Greg Thorne, who started the W.A.T.C.H. Dogs group for fathers at the school.
Following the fire in the early morning hours on Aug. 22, the school relocated three miles away to the Scottsdale Unified School District’s Oak campus, which was being used as the district’s central kitchen.
The move occurred in just one day’s time with Navajo administrators, teachers and staff able to get the school up and running at its new location. That effort involved an emergency meeting coordinated by interim Superintendent John Kriekard and an all-hands-on-deck effort to prepare the new site, Patzlaff said.
“Our number one job is to educate kids,” Patzlaff said. “(The district asked) ‘How can we get kids back here as quick as possible to this campus?’”
Navajo, which opened in 1960, is a beloved neighborhood institution. Many local residents went there themselves before watching their children and grandchildren also attend the school.
The district has already announced that the Navajo campus will be closed for the duration of the school year due to the fire damage.
The school board will meet on Tuesday, Oct. 16, to discuss Navajo’s future and which schools to renovate with its remaining bond funds.
The school was able to successfully reopen at the Oak campus for K-5 students, while Navajo’s two preschool programs were relocated to nearby Yavapai and Hohokam Elementary Schools because the Oak campus was not certified to house preschool programs.
Since then, teachers have regularly been on campus late into evenings and weekends to make sure their classrooms are ready for students. Kindergarten teachers from other schools have even volunteered time to help their colleagues set up their classrooms.
Dads from the W.A.T.C.H. Dogs group also helped move furniture and set up classrooms.
The school also modified start times and bus schedules to make sure all parents have safe transportation to get their kids to school.
Three miles is a long way for the children who live within walking distance of the now-shuttered Navajo campus. That is why a Navajo staff member is still on site every morning at the old campus to meet students, who are then picked up by a bus and shuttled to the Oak campus.
“It put a lot of pressure on the students, parents, teachers and administrators,” said Thorne, a parent. “I’m just grateful for parents in the community. If not for them, (this school) wouldn’t be here.”
The community also played a major role in making sure Navajo students and teachers had the supplies they needed to get back to school.
Those supplies were critical, as the fire affected about 75 percent of the Navajo campus and resulted in damage from smoke, water from burst pipes and possible asbestos. It affected the majority of the school’s classrooms, the art wing and computer labs, according to the district.
Teachers lost nearly everything that was in their classrooms, from instructional materials to their personal items like family photos, Kriekard said at the meeting.
The Navajo Elementary School PTO has stepped up and started a crowd-funding campaign on the website Chuffed that has raised over $14,000. The PTO is able to use its funds to reimburse teachers who are buying new supplies out of pocket.
The overall community – from parents to other schools in the district – has also stepped in and contributed supplies.
Patzlaff said the storage room at the new campus was filled “floor to ceiling” with donated items within days of the fire.
“The old-fashioned saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ has never been more true,” Patzlaff said.
Still, even with that generous outpouring of support, teachers at Navajo are still in need of donations to replace everything from chairs and books to staples like markers, glue sticks and scissors.
“We’re calling this the new Navajo,” Patzlaff said. “Yes, our geographic location changed, but we are still Navajo. We are a very strong school with a big sense of community pride.”
One father who attended Navajo himself as a child and showed up at a recent governing board meeting said that the Oak campus is only a temporary solution and that he would consider moving his kids to a charter school if the original Navajo campus is closed.
The fire was just the latest factor to complicate the uncertain future of the school and others in the district.
At a SUSD Board study session on Aug. 30, Kriekard said there are three options for Navajo moving forward: renovate, rebuild or consolidate.
Parents do not want to see the old campus go away.
“It was a (much-needed) community center in south Scottsdale,” said Elie Goodman, who has two children attending the school. “The thought of that going away devastates me.”
Renovating would cost approximately $5 million to $6 million – including insurance payouts and roughly $3.5 million in district funds – and would involve gutting the damaged buildings and replacing major systems like air conditioning and telecommunications. It would also include renovations to rooms unaffected by the fire.
Skip Brown, a bond consultant for the district, said a rebuild could cost between $19 million and $26 million, depending on size.
Kriekard said Navajo is still one of the schools the district is considering for a rebuild. The school was listed as a candidate for a rebuild on district materials used to promote SUSD’s bond election in 2016.
The district’s final option is consolidation, which could affect schools with under 500 students.
“All of those will be decisions you will make as we supply you with all the information you need,” Kriekard told the board.
If the district opts to renovate Navajo, Kriekard estimated students could be back at the old campus by fall break of next year. A total rebuild would take at least 18 months from the time the district begins the process.
As the district considers how to allocate funds for renovations and rebuilding in the future, enrollment will play a factor and schools like Navajo K-5 – which has seen its enrollment drop from 418 students in 2013 to 342 this year – may face calls for consolidation.
The school board heard a presentation Oct. 4 that indicated Navajo’s enrollment is expected to continue dropping – due in large part to competition from charter schools and Pueblo Elementary.
However, Patzlaff is quick to point out that enrollment numbers only tell part of the story.
For instance, one reason enrollment numbers are down compared to several years ago is Navajo went from a K-6 school to a K-5.
“That took 75 to 100 kids off and put them at Mojave after they rebuilt that middle school,” Patzlaff said.
He also said Navajo historically had a large special education population. Two years ago, the district moved a few special education programs to other campuses.
Patzlaff also said that enrollment numbers do not reflect the special programs and services that Navajo provides its students and the unique place it occupies within the community.
For instance, he pointed out that Navajo has a high rate of special education students – an area of need as schools across the state struggle to fill open special education teaching positions.
Navajo is also one of two STEAM schools in the district, meaning there is a heavy focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, that prepares children for science and technology programs in middle and high school. The other is Laguna Elementary.
Being a STEAM school means curriculum and teaching methods differ from other schools.
“We do a lot with hands-on learning on campus that may be different maybe from a traditional school in a sense that we have kids sitting at tables (instead of desks), and they work with their shoulder partner and their face partner,” Patzlaff said.
Navajo Elementary also provides a collection of before and after school programs for children, including an Early Bird program that allows parents to drop off their kids before school starts.
“We use site funds to be able to offset it because some of our parents can’t afford childcare for before school,” Patzlaff said.
In addition to free and reduced-price lunch, the school also offers breakfast and a light meal for kids in after school programs.
The school also offers a variety of after school programs in collaboration with the City of Scottsdale and has a free Title 1 preschool.
“The school is the center of this community, and we have a lot more going on than just the typical school day,” Patzlaff said.