Arizona school to reopen with new name, mission

Aug 20, 2018 by and

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Hopi Mission School has a new name and a new mission.

The Mennonite Schools Council member in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., is seeking to turn over a new page after former superintendent Thane Epefanio pleaded guilty in November to embezzling funds from the school to support a gambling habit.

Though a firm start date has not been established, the school — now Peace Academic Center — is hoping to begin offering services to members of the Hopi reservation community at some point this fall.

Mennonite Education Agency executive director Carlos Romero said the new name was selected about a month and a half ago and is one of the ways MEA is trying to partner with and respond to what the community desires.

“ ‘Hopi’ means ‘peace,’ and we wanted to honor that,” he said. “But we also wanted to use the term ‘academic center’ rather than ‘school,’ partly because we believe the academic center language is more inclusive of the other kinds of education that could be part of our efforts there in the future.”

While the previous school focused on traditional elementary and middle school fare, Peace Academic Center will begin with a preschool and GED completion courses.

“Part of what we hope to do is to use the preschool child care for people who might be going through that GED program,” Romero said. “For many people, the only way they can go through the program is if child care is provided for them.

“Once we’re able to start with something like that, we’ll continue expanding.”

Hopi Mission School Foundation director Kay Neff said when the school was founded in 1951 there was only one other grade school on the reservation. Today there are five.

“But early childhood education is certainly not what they’re getting,” she said, noting about 90 percent of young women at one point weren’t completing high school due to pregnancy. “Many children are being raised by grandparents, and great- and great-great-grandparents.

“So we’re pretty excited about adding a pre-K program, and then it’s easy to add a year because those people will want to stay and we can add grades going up.”

Ongoing conversations

The new name will be highlighted when MEA hosts a community open house Sept. 8 at the school. Romero said the event will include a picnic and a question-and-answer time with Mennonite Church USA moderator David Boshart.

While some plans fall into place, other long-term challenges remain.

“We have just had a significant challenge being able to find people who might be willing to go there right now and kind of help our efforts,” said Romero. MEA has been trying to secure such workers for nearly a year.

“We would like to have a person there for at least a year, but we would be happy to have one or a couple for at least the next three or four months to be helping us there on site to get some of these efforts going,” he said.

In addition to the MC USA Executive Board, MEA has been in conversation with the board of Mennonite Mission Network about the possibility of returning a voluntary service unit to the school or incorporating volunteers with MMN’s short-term SOOP volunteer program.

MMN closed its service worker unit in Kykotsmovi in 2014 when an MC USA task force convened to address concerns about financial transparency and school administrators’ lack of cooperation with MEA.

Hopi Mission School Foundation is also returning from hibernation. The organization had a role supporting the school financially before fiscal suspicions began mounting about five years ago.

“We’re trying to rebuild the relationships with past donors and begin efforts of restarting development work for the school,” Romero said. “ . . . While the whole legal case was going, development efforts pretty much dried up.”

Meeting needs

The Hopi Mission School Foundation’s connection to supporting the school’s budget made it the initial whistleblower when financial irregularities popped up. As a separate entity from the school, it is continuing to use its name as it works to get the facility back up and running.

“We are coordinating efforts both financial and staff-wise,” Neff said. “Right now we’re working on getting the place cleaned up and livable for teachers. We have a lot of work with housing. Most of it is in reasonable shape, nothing needs to be built, but there’s a lot of broken windows and almost no furniture left.

“We’ll have a drive for good serviceable furniture. Hopefully we’ll get some people willing to go out and spend a week cleaning and doing handyman stuff.”

While many churches used to collect soup labels for the school to turn in for funds, the Campbell Soup Co. has ceased the program. Donations to “Hopi Mission School Foundation” can be mailed to 718 N. Main St., Newton, KS 67114.

“Our needs right now are prayer. Our needs are volunteers. Our needs are money,” Neff said.

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