After two years locked up and dormant, the former Hopi Mission School in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., is again serving students. Now known as Peace Academic Center, the facility has a few finishing touches to go before it officially opens Aug. 14.
After former superintendent Thane Epefanio pleaded guilty Nov. 13, 2017, to embezzling almost $1 million from school funds, and Mennonite Church USA took legal action to evict the local school board, the school sat empty as courts decided who owned the school.
MC USA prevailed due to the school’s relationship stretching to the mid-20th century with the former General Conference Mennonite Church. But in the absence of teachers and students, items disappeared and rodents and insects moved in.
Lance Polingyouma was eventually hired as cultural liaison and host. For some time the sole employee, he is being joined by two teachers this fall. One of his first tasks last September was to coordinate work groups made up of local people and volunteers from a distance to begin clearing out trash, and clean, repair and update the school buildings.
Sitting in the MEA booth July 3 at the MC USA convention in Kansas City, Mo., he described an 80-foot hallway piled 5 feet high with trash. Sewer lines backed up in April and had to be replaced, as did some flooring, drywall and electrical systems.
“It turns out it wasn’t malice, it was just neglect,” he said.
As daunting as it seemed, much of the damage was relatively superficial and due to a lack of maintenance. He said it had been five years since anyone had been allowed in to repair anything.
“When we actually got all the work groups in there, tightened all the pipes, we found the facility is in very good shape,” said Polingyouma, who grew up Mennonite on the reservation, attended HMS and now attends an independent church started by a Mennonite. “The classrooms are in very good shape. Anything of material value — tools, laptops, vehicles — that’s gone; things with liquid value were quickly disposed.
“But things for running the school — like books, the library, desks, chairs — we could quite literally open tomorrow. We have heating, cooling, running water. At this point it’s just a matter of getting the teachers for running the school and paying them.”
A different template
Education efforts resumed already last winter, when the first group of students began working on a high school diploma equivalency program in partnership with Northland Pioneer College, which is difficult for many students to attend due to the distance. Most of the 15 students who enrolled in January don’t own a vehicle.
“The statistic is 90 percent of young Hopi women don’t make it through high school without getting pregnant, and that makes them virtually unemployable,” said Kay Neff, who chairs the Hopi Mission School Foundation out of Newton, Kan.
Neff said Peace Academic Center is using a different template from when HMS opened in 1951. Back then there was only one grade school on the reservation; today there are five.
“This is an opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute, what are the needs in the community?’ And we asked,” she said. “One of the biggest things that was confirmed in our visits is that early childhood development is woefully underdeveloped. We need a kindergarten that truly prepares them for school and isn’t just day care. Now we’ll have a kindergarten program that they can repeat until they are ready.”
Kindergarten classes return in September, and Polingyouma already has his eye on adding a preschool class for early childhood development.
The school has partnered with several Hopi groups, in addition to a missionary family from South Korea, and since May it has become the office home to the Hopi Education Endowment, University of Arizona air-quality testing and extension education groups, Hopi Social Services and the Hopi Tewa Women’s Coalition.
Polingyouma said the community noticed how the school was transforming, and children have been quick to return. The gym is being opened several nights a week, and he hopes to start a volleyball league, to be followed by softball. The school has hosted a graduation party, health fair and a job/education fair.
“I’m going to have our community members being coaches and participating in the programs. The school will simply facilitate,” Polingyouma said. “It’s not going to be so overly emphasized as in the past. It will follow the program we do now — that we don’t proselytize, we facilitate, and the people will know that when they come to school they’ll hear about Christ, and they’re fine with that.”
In a sign of MC USA’s commitment to the school’s success, an offering for Peace Academic Center collected $8,006 during convention.