Going NATIVE

New building embodies the future of career education

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

KAYENTA, Ariz., May 10, 2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Ron Lee, a lobbyist for the Northeast Arizona Technical Institute for Vocational Education, speaks at the grand opening of NATIVE's new headquarters and learning center in Kayenta April 26.




N ot all that long ago, vocational education was the neglected stepchild of Arizona's education system, reserved for those students who, as their counselors scribbled on their transcripts, were "not college material."

The new administration and training center for the Northeast Arizona Technical Institute of Vocational Education is an irrefutable statement that those days are gone for good.

Everything you see in the new $3.5 million building - the first phase in a planned four-building, $20 million complex - is not only beautiful and functional, it's also a teaching tool.

For example, those 120 solar panels on the roof? They'll be maintained by the students in the electrical and power transmission program, along with the three power-generating windmills that will one day stand outside.

The little convenience store will be handy for students, teachers and tourists staying in the hospitality hogans outside - and it will be entirely manned by students learning the fine art of retail.

The ag students will grow herbs and veggies for the culinary arts students to use in their restaurant, and media arts students will help out with the televised distance learning classes.

Those who study early childhood education can walk across the street and help out at Head Start.

This isn't a school so much as a cooperative, self-sustaining village.

And did we mention it's the first building in the world - yes, world - to be built under the International Green Code?

As its acronym suggests, it's also very Native, said Frankie Gilmore, career and technical education director for NATIVE (one of the four joint technical education districts created by the Arizona Legislature in 2002).

The finished campus will consist of four training centers located around a central sculpture representing the central fire of a hogan.

The design of the building incorporates the sacred number four in multiple incarnations, along with traditional rug designs and a painted "pollen path" down the hallway.

Large windows let in the spectacular landscape Kayenta is famous for.

Since the nine schools that comprise the district are all on the Navajo Nation, "everything will be done the Navajo way," Gilmore said.

For instance, culinary arts students will learn the best ingredients and methods of Diné cooking. The landscape will be Native plants that can get by with rainwater captured from the building's expansive roof.


The administrators - including NATIVE Superintendent Karen Lesher, who has been pinching pennies for years to save for this dream - are already in their spacious offices, and classes in graphics and computers are already being taught.

Starting in the fall, the building will buzz with hospitality, electrical, culinary arts, multimedia and health science classes as well.

"Schools are already calling us and asking what we're going to be offering," Lesher said.

When Lesher first started envisioning this center when she took the helm at NATIVE 9 years ago, she had imagined dorms as well, so students could travel from the far-flung corners of the district to take classes.

Since then, distance-learning technology has improved so much, there's no need for that.

"Distance learning today is very interactive," she said. "We can broadcast to any school in the district, and if, say, Chinle, has a nursing class they want to broadcast, we could bring students here to participate."

The curriculum is flexible as well.

"If an industry needs tailorized, private training, we can provide that," said Ron Lee, NATIVE's government liaison.

"We do have a huge labor force here, but a large part of it is unskilled," he said. "With 61 percent of Peabody's workforce retiring in the next few years, they're going to need people who are trained and ready to step into those jobs."

You'll get no argument from Henry Begishe, a 58-year-old Peabody miner who is hoping to retire within the next few years. Begishe traveled to Kayenta from his home on Black Mesa April 26 for the grand opening of the NATIVE center.

The miner, originally from Navajo Mountain, said he had to go to Charlotte, N.C., for his mining training.

"I've got six kids, and they're going to take my place soon," he said. "Maybe some of them can go to school here."

There was a time when the state of Arizona might have let Begishe's kids go elsewhere, but not now. The entire $20 million for this complex, to be built out over the next 10 years, is coming from state grants (unlike some of the other joint technical education districts, NATIVE has no way to collect property tax).

"It's been a joy to see it progress and see it come to this point," Lesher said. "We've had so much support from the state, and from the community as well.

"Of course, there's a long way to go before it's complete," she said. "We're a rising star."

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