Blooming in the desert

Revitalized school needs closer relationships

Aug 5, 2019 by

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Like a summer rain coaxes dormant plants to flower in the desert, life is returning to the former Hopi Mission School in Kykotsmovi, Ariz.

Reborn as Peace Academic Center, the former elementary and middle school is serving the surrounding reservation first as a community center, GED completion option and kindergarten.

What comes next is limited only by the level of support the school receives from donors and volunteers. Mennonite Education Agency has shown it wants this member of the Mennonite Schools Council to succeed. But getting the classroom doors open is only the first step.

Each of the next steps should be taken together, walking in relationship. It’s a delicate balance, requiring closeness that bears trust but distance that allows a sense of local ownership.

From the 1950s to 1990s when HMS was an effort of the General Conference Mennonite Church, there was closeness and trust. It seemed appropriate near the end of that period for the General Conference to step back and allow a local school board to take over from a distant church body that continued sending volunteer teachers.

But something got lost in the merger that created Mennonite Church USA. The Hopi live on a reservation within a reservation, surrounded by the Navajo Nation, and remoteness made it increasingly difficult to find adequate administration. It was the perfect place for a corrupt superintendent to thrive, and Thane Epefanio made the most of it through fraud and embezzlement.

Local involvement is not the same as appropriate oversight. Epefanio had the full support of the school’s board, which he was able to turn against the denomination for “walking away” after the 1990s. It was no surprise to many when the board’s treasurer was also charged with fraud.

A close relationship with both MEA and the foundation that raises funds for the school should be tended with the care that life in the desert requires.

It was a wise decision to hire Lance Polingyouma as cultural liaison and host. He’s an HMS alumnus. His affection for the community and desire for the school to succeed is apparent. But it won’t be easy, and Polingyouma can’t do it all on his own.

“Kykotsmovi,” loosely translated, is Hopi for “pile of rubble.” Despite the efforts of squatters and thieves over the past two years, Peace Academic Center is much more than that. How much it blooms will be decided by how many volunteer teachers and donors choose to see what happens in the desert when the rains return.

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