KNAU and Arizona News
12:13 pm
Thu January 30, 2014

NO AZ Solar School: One Of the Coolest Schools In America

Parent and Child Magazine recently named a school in northern Arizona one of the top 25 coolest schools in America. The STAR School, near Flagstaff and the edge of the Navajo Nation, is the first completely solar powered public charter school in the country. From making its own power, to growing its own food, the school's mission is to be as sustainable as possible. But, as Arizona Public Radio's Justin Regan reports, being off the grid has its challenges.

One of the many solar panels at The STAR School east of Flagstaff
Credit Justin Regan/KNAU

Solar panels are all over the campus of The STAR School: on the roofs of buildings, near the parking lot. And about a hundred new panels are behind the gym waiting to be plugged into the power grid of the country's first all-solar public charter school. Dr. Mark Sorenson is a co-founder of the school. He says, "we've actually set up our own mini power plant here."

Before founding The STAR School 13 years ago, Sorensen commuted 90 miles a day to his job at a different school. That made him want to do better closer to home. Sorensen's seen his school come a long way from when it started as a single building wrapped in plastic, to a model of sustainability. "There are a lot of people who want to know how you can do this," Sorensen says, "or that you can (do it). Just that it's possible."

It's possible, but it's hard. Maintenance of the equipment is constant, as is grant writing. Many things have to go through red tape, like certifying their own greenhouse, as well as food from local farms. STAR School co-founder Cate Sorensen says, even the use of drinking water has a lengthy approval process. "We got a grant to dig a well and put in all the equipment," she says. "But, because of all the paperwork, we haven't been able t use it. We just now got certified, but now there are mechanical problems, the pumps had to be replaced. It's just crazy when the government gives you money one one hand, and stops us from using the water even though there's been nothing wrong with it."

Cate Sorensen power supplies are meticulously monitored at the school. And the buildings were designed to save energy, too. "They're pretty simple, but they make sense," she says. "Most of the windows are on the south side. We really want to have natural light in all of the classrooms. It takes away from the need for us to use our heaters as much."

Still, it can be hard for the solar power to keep up. A few cloudy days in a row and evening meetings are canceled, teachers don't work as late as usual. But, as Mark Sorensen says, "it's actually a good teaching thing to have these limits on power so we can be more conscious on how we're using it."

And teaching sustainability is the focus at The STAR School. Once a week, 3rd and 4th grace students - like Skyla - collect the school's recycling. "We sort it into cans, cardboard, plastic and paper," she says. Then Skyla and the other kids take notes and collect data. And then they take all the information back into the classroom. Skyla says, "we write how we did the math and then we ask the class a question and then they answer it, like about addition and subtraction."

While the initial investment to go off the grid was higher than plugging into it, school founders Mark and Cate Sorensen say they pay  no monthly utility bills. And, in about 10 years, they expect The STAR School to be paying for itself.