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Hopi High Hailed as RPCV Magnet

Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Located in the middle of the Hopi Reservation in Northern Arizona, Hopi Junior/Senior High School, a decade ago, suffered from many of the same problems as other reservation schools. It had a high turnover of both teachers and administrators, low test scores, little technology, and few supplies. Today that has all changed. In fact, Hopi High attracts and keeps so many Peace Corps Fellows (PCFs) and RPCVs who are not Fellows that the term “Mecca Effect” was coined by Gary Robson in his doctoral dissertation on the Northern Arizona University (NAU) Fellows program. During the past eight years, 18 RPCVs and PCFs have worked at Hopi High, and most have stayed more than the two years required for the program. The current number of RPCVs and PCFs teaching at the school is eight (one-fifth of the teaching staff), with half of those having stayed six years or more. I am also in my third year of teaching on a reservation. I transferred to Hopi High from another school because of the reputation it has in the Fellows community.

Three events coincided to create this amazing change. First, the school was changed from a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school controlled through the federal government, to a locally controlled grant/charter school. This allowed for more local decision making and created new funding sources, which have been wisely used and invested. Because of this change in funding, materials and technology are now available for the teachers as needed.

Second, the administration stabilized. Previously, the school had 15 principals in nine years and a 90 percent turnover rate for teachers. Our current superintendent, Paul Reynolds, Ph.D., and principal, Dave Herbert, Ph.D., both began working at Hopi High at about the same time the school changed from a BIA to a grant school. The two have worked very diligently to improve the school. They have made student performance, quality staff, and teacher resources a priority. The result of their combined effort is teachers who are content to stay and work at the school. This last year saw a turnover rate of only 10 percent.

Finally, the Peace Corps Fellows/USA program at NAU began during this same period. I interviewed several people about the Fellows program, including non-Fellow RPCV teachers, and their opinions were unanimously positive. The general perception is that Peace Corps Fellows care. “That is the crux of teaching and why the Fellows Program works,” said one longtime Fellow. “It’s a natural match.”

Herbert is also a strong supporter of the program. “As far as an organization producing teachers, (Fellows/USA) is as good as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The Peace Corps experience of teaching in a different culture plays hand in hand with living in an isolated area.”

One last but very important thing I discovered in writing this article is that RPCVs and PCFs improve the school through activities that are the equivalent of Peace Corps secondary projects. Current RPCVs or PCFs started the after-school tutoring program and the honors math program. They lead the special education pre-referral process, which is used to determine whether or not a student should be tested to qualify for special education. They also oversee the gifted and talented education program called GATE. This is an after school program which includes field trips, projects, and other activities that enrich the students’ education. RPCVs and PCFs also serve as department heads, helping to guide the direction of the school.

Hopi Junior/Senior High School has turned itself around, and we are all proud of the results. Peace Corps Fellows have played an important role in this transformation and will continue to do so as each year brings new Fellows to the school.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig (Thailand)

Saundra is a Peace Corps Fellow at Northern Arizona University and teaches at Hopi Junior-Senior High.

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