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To’Hajiilee receives $90.4 million to build a new community school away from flood plain

Severe weather can force students at To'Hajiilee Community School to evacuate and lose an entire day's worth of learning because the building is in such disrepair that it’s dangerous for people to be inside.

“Whenever it rains, it leaks through our roofs and floods our school. It becomes really muddy, and the dirt becomes like clay,” sophomore Nataliah Sandoval said.

The tribally-run school serves more than 300 Navajo students and is one of the top employers in the community located more than 30 miles west of Albuquerque.

So when schools are shut down because rain falls onto student’s desks and causes flooding in hallways, the impact is widespread across the only Navajo Nation community located in Bernalillo County.

Sandoval’s mother, Pamela Arviso, said she has to leave work anytime the school closes.

“It's hard to get off from work and pick up my daughter when there’s flooding or electrical problems. But I think it's going to get easier because they're facing these challenges,” she said.

The challenges of rebuilding a new school will be taken on in part by a $90.4 million appropriation Congress included in the omnibus spending bill approved last December.

U.S. Representative Melanie Stansbury (D-NM) said she saw the need for her constituents in To'Hajiilee and secured the money so a new school can be built in a safer and higher location where water does not concentrate and flood.

“For me, the story and history and just the beauty and resilience of this community in the school is what has driven me every day,” said Stansbury at a celebration in the school’s gym on Friday.

The celebration was hosted by Sandoval, the sophomore that has had water drip on her head from the leaky school roof.

“My greatest hope is that in my lifetime, I will get to sit in the gym of your new school and see one of you serving as the congress person for this district,” said Stansbury.

The To’Hajiilee Community School is a tribally-operated school with a mission to “integrate Navajo language and culture for quality academic achievement resulting in success” for all K-12 grade students.

The school was built in 1935 and was run by the Bureau of Indian Education as a boarding school for kindergartners to third graders until 1975. The dorms were shut down and the campus was reopened as a K-12 day school.

To’Hajiilee Chapter now administers the school functions and budget with some collaboration between the federal government and the Navajo Nation Tribal Education Department.

There have been prolonged safety concerns because the school was built in a flood plain, and every rain led to a risk of flooding and further deterioration to the building.

But it’s also one of the main fixtures that represents so much of the community.

On Interstate 40, a single road sign reads “To’Hajiilee” with an arrow pointing towards the lone exit. It’s easy to miss when you’re driving west towards Gallup.You instantly feel you're in new territory when the paved roads become more bumpy and unmanaged along the way. But if you continue down the one road into the community,you begin to see houses spread out from one another, graffiti marked on past billboards and a metal grater on the road to ward off cattle.

Along with more than 300 students enrolled each year, more than 90 people work at the school, according to Paulene Abeyta, vice president of the To'hajiilee Community School Board of Education.

She said school students arriving to school on the bus “cross a small little bridge that continually gets washed out,” and the first thing they regularly see when they get to campus are three foot tall sandbags designed to help with flood prevention.

“Beyond that, they see tall dirt walls that are supposed to block out the water. So imagine coming to school and seeing those knowing that that's your only protection from a huge flood of water,” Abeyta said.

She said the investment into the new school will elevate student and community expectations for their education standards.

“I think when you have safe, clean, beautiful structures with top of the line equipment to foster education and growth, your students really do see how they're valued,” Abeyta said. “I think that this is a great opportunity to set that standard for the community to start dreaming and reaching higher than ever before.”

Getting to that point means an intent to help the To’Hajiilee community that still struggles to obtain basic necessities like electricity, accessible roads and reliable internet.

“We have a lot of families here who depend on generators to operate their electrical needs. And a lot of them don't have internet or WiFi,” Abeyta said. “So that becomes another struggle. During the pandemic, we did receive special funding that allowed us to take resources to families temporarily. Unfortunately, we weren't able to make them permanent.”

The To’Hajiilee Community School Board of Education is in the process of working to design the new school, gain community input, find possible land plots and ensure that the funds are released on time through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Going forward, Abeyta is committed to having conversations with students, parents and tribal officials on what they want to see in the new school.

Denata Secatero, a senior at the school said it is important that students voice their opinions on what they want for the new school building.

“I think our voices do matter, because we're the future generation. The more we speak, it feels like we're being heard and listened to,” she said.

Abeyta knows what their school is capable of building and hopes that students and parents will be onboard every step of the way. She also wants to include discussions and ideas from other schools that are undergoing renovations or new construction.

“I’ve seen beautiful state of the art facilities, air purifiers and school room classrooms, direct access outside to playground facilities, outdoor athletic facilities and gorgeous community gardens,” she said. “Because that's what we deserve, and more.”

Secatero knows she won’t be there as a student in the new school buildings. Still, she’s happy it will be there for all those still learning.

“I'm glad that my cousins, and my little brother's gonna graduate from here. We struggled a lot, and just to be able to get a new school, it's really cool.”

This story originally ran in Source New Mexico.

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s a former Local News Fund Fellow. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.
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