Navajo community wins fight to replace crumbling campus

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This Feb. 17, 2023 image shows a wall of sandbags protecting the school in the Navajo community of To'Hajiilee, New Mexico. To'Hajiilee Community School is just one of dozens funded by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education that are in desperate need of repair or replacement. The agency estimates it would cost roughly $6.2 billion to address the needs of those schools in poor condition. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

TO'HAJIILEE, N.M. – TO'A school tucked into the sandstone cliffs and juniper-dotted mesas of central New Mexico is fortified on one side by a wall of sandbags and an earthen berm. On the other side, melting snow puddles along the edges of classrooms.

Inside, caulking, paint and metal plates hide the cracks that have formed over decades in the block walls. With each rainstorm, the nearly century-old To'Hajiilee Community School on the fringes of the Navajo Nation sinks further into the ground.

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The layers of bandages won't have to hold much longer. Residents of the small community off Interstate 40 recently learned that after years of raising flags about the school that lies in a floodplain, the latest federal budget included $90 million for a new campus.

“It’s just unbelievable that we would ever have anything that great happen,” said Paulene Abeyta, a mother and vice president of the school board.

To'Hajiilee Community School is just one of about 80 schools funded by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education that are in desperate need of repair or replacement. The agency's priorities stretch across the country with schools in Maine, Wisconsin, North Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona and Washington.

The price tag tops $6.2 billion, and the wait is long.

To'Hajiilee would not have been moved up the priority list last year if not for a community campaign driven by stories of flooded classrooms and playgrounds, relentless calls to Washington, D.C., and invitations for decision-makers to see it in person. Otherwise, another decade would have passed and another generation of students would have walked the same halls.

“When you see the kids here today and the talent and just the excitement, you think about how limitless the opportunities are for kids if they can just focus on becoming the people that they were meant to be and not have to deal with crumbling classrooms,” said U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico.

Stansbury joined school officials, students and parents earlier this month to celebrate the funding. While it puts only a small dent in the bureau's backlog, she said it will mark a new era for the Navajo community.

Officials hope to break ground in about a year. Already, Abeyta charged the students with dreaming big.

That means softball fields free of prickly weeds, and ant piles, water bottle filling stations, a gym with long bleachers and a big scoreboard, toilets that flush, motion-sensing sinks, well-equipped classrooms for art and woodworking, a music room filled with instruments and a culinary program with big ovens.

School administrator Willinda Castillo said community input will be vital to ensuring success.

“The school is, I think, the heart of this community,” she said.

Generations of To'Hajiilee students have learned Navajo history and language in the school. Plaques outside classroom doors display the grade and subjects taught in Navajo, or Diné. Murals adorn hallways and posters remind students and teachers to integrate Diné as often as possible.

Many of the students at the recent celebration wore traditional clothing while members of the senior class danced and performed a blessing way song.

Students erupted with cheers and stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers when school board members talked about the possibilities ahead.

Abeyta and others shared stories of teachers fleeing to their vehicles to avoid being stranded as floodwaters washed over the school grounds. Other times, classes were canceled as moats formed around portable buildings and parking lots were submerged. Flooding even washed out the bridge leading to the school.

Castillo checks the forecast daily and adjusts evacuation plans if needed.

With the backlog of deferred maintenance across the bureau's system ballooning, To'Hajiilee knew pleading from afar wouldn't be enough — they invited former U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland who now heads the Interior Department, members of Congress and top officials from the Bureau of Indian Education to see the school for themselves.

“You know, there’s a lot of times when our voices are not heard, and in order for our voices to be heard we just had to take it upon ourselves,” Castillo said. “I think that’s what made the difference.”

Stansbury and her staff followed a visit last year with countless emails, regular phone calls and conversations with as many congressional leaders as possible. They had a singular plea as Congress finalized the budget in December — funding for To'Hajiilee. Videos of raging flood waters, damaged foundations and cracked walls helped make the case that students and staff weren't safe.

The To'Hajiilee campus dates to the 1930s, when the first rock-walled classrooms were erected as part of the federal Works Progress Administration. Those buildings are long gone, having been replaced in the 1950s with buildings that were then overhauled in the 1980s.

Larry Holman, To'Hajiilee's administrative services specialist, picked up a section of broken bathroom piping that was sitting on a shelf in his office. It was thick with corrosion and had a crack running down one side — more evidence of the condition of plumbing throughout the school.

The water gets tested every other week, but it's not potable. The school doles out water bottles daily, creating another expense.

Along with the new school, the community will be tying into the water supply for Albuquerque, which is New Mexico's largest city about 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the east.

“It’s not only about building a new place for this community for kids to go to school, but it will be the place where future generations grow up and become who they are. And, you know, a school can literally transform lives,” Stansbury said.

The congresswoman, who worked in the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration, rallied lawmakers last year to increase the bureau budget for school construction and repairs. Still, the 2023 budget is a fraction of what advocates say is needed to address deficiencies in a school system that serves more than 45,000 Native students in nearly two dozen states.

The To'Hajiilee Community School has roots as a federal boarding school. The community itself was settled during the Long Walk when thousands of Navajos endured cold, disease and starvation as the U.S. attempted to relocate them to eastern New Mexico. Some residents say the initial inhabitants of this stretch of high desert were a renegade band of sorts that refused to go farther. They called the spot To'Hajiilee, which translates roughly to “drawing water from a well.”

While the $90 million cost for a new school was unfathomable to second-graders in Adrianne Keene's class who were learning about money, it's not out of line with construction costs for modern education facilities.

Keene handed out bags of play coins for the class to count. When asked if they wanted to count to $90 million, the students gasped but didn't hesitate to share their ideas about what they wanted at their new school.

"Will we get a new playground?” one girl asked.

“A rollercoaster!” a boy said.

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