The public school complex in Ajo, Arizona, sits just behind the historic plaza in the center of town. The walk is fewer than five minutes if you take a shortcut through a gap in the chain link fence and then cross over the old, weedy railroad tracks. (Previous accounts of Ajo—the town, the plaza, the overall challenges, and the responses underway—can be read here.)
The high school, which opened in 1956, and the elementary school, which opened 35 years later, are new by Ajo standards.
They replaced the old Curley School, which was built in 1919 for Ajo’s then-growing population of copper miners’ children and is now home to the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, the non-profit organization driving Ajo’s development.
Today's Ajo school is a series of low-slung single-story buildings. Each classroom has a doorway to the outside walkways, protected by overhangs should it ever rain here in the desert. Across the road and dominating the landscape, you can see the looming shape of the mine's waste product, the tailings. The classrooms seemed dark to me, perhaps as protection against the heat and sun, which were welcome in February, but probably not as much in September or May.
There are a total of 480 students in Ajo’s pre-K through 12th grade schools, including the 25 seniors who will graduate this May. It's not a highly-privileged school population. Over half the students, 56 percent, are Hispanic. About 15 percent are white. Another 25 percent are Native American. (Over 25 percent of Arizona is Native American reservation land; 20 different tribes are members of Arizona’s Intertribal Council.) About 80 percent of students in Ajo qualify for free or reduced lunch, a proxy for poverty, compared with 55 percent of students in Arizona overall.