By Zak Podmore
Photos by Sarah Burak
Construction of the long-anticipated, $10 million elementary school in Bluff is finally underway. On February 26, students, teachers, district staff, and community members gathered on a dirt lot just west of Cottonwood Wash to watch the official groundbreaking ceremony.
Superintendent Ron Nielson spoke, along with district staff. Students wore yellow hardhats, recited the Pledge of Allegiance in the Navajo language, and performed songs and dances. The building site was blessed with corn pollen and prayers in accordance with Diné tradition before the ground was broken with golden shovels.
Last fall, MHTN Architects, the firm who has been hired to oversee the school’s design, announced initial plans for the 35,600-square-foot facility. The new school will feature larger classrooms than the current elementary school, a larger cafeteria-gym flex space, a computer lab, and an outdoor playground.
After receiving input from a cultural committee made up of local Diné parents and community members, architects agreed to include a Heritage Language classroom with rounded walls as a nod to traditional Diné building styles.
The entrance to the school is expected to include artwork representing the four sacred mountains that mark the boundaries of the Diné homeland. Other cultural aspects will be incorporated into the design, including wedding basket themes, the natural colors of the local sandstone, and river designs.
Diane Benn, a parent and member of the cultural committee, is pleased with the current plans.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “I hope it takes off and all the kids appreciate their school and the surrounding areas. There’s a lot of beauty out here.”
The school district originally bought land just west of Bluff in 2015 for the elementary school. Building was delayed in 2017 over concerns about abundant Ancestral Puebloan burial sites that had been found near the property. The district later completed a land swap with the Utah Navajo Trust Fund to secure the 23.6-acre site near Cottonwood Wash, which was previously used for the annual Utah Navajo Fair.
The school district has not yet announced plans for the current school building, but the Bluff Town Council has formally requested that the district consider transferring ownership of the building to the town. Mayor Ann Leppanen wrote a letter to the school board stating that the building could be used for badly needed administrative offices, public services such as vehicle registration, and to house nonprofits such as Design Build Bluff, Community Rebuilds, and Utah Diné Bikéyah.
After the Bluff groundbreaking was complete, a similar blessing and ceremony was held near the Montezuma Creek Elementary School, where a new gymnasium is being built for $3.1 million. Both projects will be built by Tri-Hurst Construction.