Little Singer School gets bold new building
Since the mid-1970s, the twin red geodesic domes of Little Singer Community School have risen from the barren, grey landscape of Birdsprings, Arizona, like a space colony on a desert planet.
They are a testament to a community’s ingenuity and desire to educate their children locally. But the school has long since outgrown them and the hodgepodge collection of buildings that sprouted around them as the need arose. With old-school single-phase power in the buildings, it’s impossible to implement the technology needed for modern instruction.
Last week, 16 years after the school administration and board first submitted their application for a new school building to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, their wish came true with the dedication of a state-of-the-art, 32,000-square-foot, $28 million new school building and campus.
The new Little Singer has two things in common with its predecessor. No. 1 is its architecture of intersecting circles — just as iconic as the domes, and apparently just as eye-catching.
“As you come up to it on the highway, you can’t see it until you crest the hill, and then, all of a sudden, there it is,” said Justin Shirley, the project manager for the building. “People brake. Sometimes they turn around so they can go back and get a better look, maybe take a picture with their cell phone.”
The other connection between the two schools is the Singer family itself. Little Singer is named after Hataalii Yazhi, a local medicine man who lamented to a bilagáana friend that he hated to see his grandchildren and the other local children leave the area to go to boarding school in Flagstaff or Winslow. The friend helped Little Singer build the original school on his land.
The current building was erected by Keyah Construction Inc. of Phoenix, whose founder and owner just happens to be Harry Singer … one of the very grandchildren for whom the first Little Singer school was built. “If we hadn’t gotten the bid,” confided Singer in a phone interview, “I would have found some way to get involved in this project.”
The intersecting circles of the building, designed by Eaton Architecture Inc., in Salt Lake City, represent the four previous worlds of the Navajo, emerging into the fifth, or present world, Singer explained.
Other cultural touches include references to the sacred mountains and sacred colors, and the impressive bare-beamed, high-ceilinged round classroom that will serve as the cultural learning center, kind of like a modern hogan. It’s also up for LEED certification, with its passive solar design, active production of up to 20 kilowatt-hours of grid-connected solar electricity, and LED lights that automatically turn off 10 minutes after everyone leaves a room.
In addition to the school itself, the project included a transportation barn, faculty housing and a fire suppression system with a 300,000-gallon water tank.
Shirley said the project was the most difficult of his career, not only because of the circular architecture and the intersection of three different building materials — structural steel, concrete and masonry — but because it’s six miles off the highway on a dirt road.
“We had subs (subcontractors) from Chicago, Indiana, and Alabama,” he said. “We had to meet them in Winslow and lead them in so they could find it. They were like, ‘Why is this school in the middle of nowhere?’” The dirt road turns to soup when it’s wet, Shirley said, and one time a truck delivering steel beams got stuck. “I was like, ‘All right, everyone with a truck, get out here!’” Shirley said. “We hauled them out rez style.”
He also used his rez wiles to call in some favors when the two-year project hit a logjam. When a late forestry report was holding things up, “I called all my family and said, ‘Who works for the BIA?’” Shirley recalled. “I found out my cousin does. I called him and said, ‘I need your help.’ We got the forestry report.”
Similarly, when it came time to run the fiber-optic line, “NTUA said ‘We’re not going to be there until December,’” Shirley recalled. “My parents go to church with one of the big heads of NTUA, so I talked to him. He assigned a project manager and they got it done.” If the school hadn’t hired a Navajo contractor with connections, Shirley surmises, the building still wouldn’t be finished.
Unfortunately, because COVID-19 has necessitated online learning, the 100 or so Little Singer students in grades K-6 won’t be able to enjoy their new building for a while, although teachers will be able to teach from it. “I know the students will be overjoyed to have a new school they can take pride in, and the day is coming when this pandemic will be over,” said Principal Etta Shirley (no relation to Justin) at the school’s dedication last week. “We can’t wait for them to come back.”
Singer said after his grandfather got too old to continue working with Little Singer School, his father, Benny Singer, took over, so he feels his own involvement in the new school marks the completion of a family legacy. If Hataalii Yazhi were here to see the dedication, he said, “I know he would shed a tear.”
But that’s not why he continued their legacy. “This building will outlast me and everybody else,” he said. “This isn’t for us. It’s for the students that will move into this building next year, and many future generations of Little Singer students.” Nonetheless, he admitted, he may shed a tear or two when the old Little Singer is demolished — the next phase of the project. “That’s going to be a sad day,” he said.