March 2014

Academy of Sustainability Education Planned for Santa Fe


Kim Shanahan


Real sustainability can only be achieved if the social fabric of a local community is sustained. In one as fascinating, complex and beautiful as Santa Fe, that is not easy. The proposed reconfiguration of the South Campus of Santa Fe High around a concept to be called The Academy of Sustainability Education will engage Santa Fe’s diverse youth with rigorous, relevant, hands-on, project-based learning. It will weave sustainability into the fabric of their lives.

Santa Feans who experienced Santa Fe High School more than 15 years ago, either as parents, as students or both, have clear memories of education on the South Campus. It was the site of a thriving and educationally diverse Vo-Tech program. It was a place where kids could go to learn specific stuff that often started them on their successful career paths.

It was also often the place where kids who couldn’t read well or had “attitudes” could be around similar kids motivated by similar career goals and ambitions. Today we recognize some of those children may have one of 20 forms of dyslexia, or maybe ADHD, functional autism, or even PTSD from traumatic childhood experiences, especially poverty and hunger.

So these days we can label and name the things that challenge learning, but career-based education has been largely abandoned by America’s public schools, including (with a few notable exceptions) all secondary education in Santa Fe. And then we actually wonder why we suffer a near 50 percent dropout rate? Do we not recognize the obvious cause and effect?

The Academy of Sustainability Education will bring back relevant education delivered in a radically different (but maybe not new) form called “project-based learning.” What is new, however, will be the pathways of study. There will be five, but they can and will overlap under the broad umbrella of sustainability. They are:

  • Green Building, Architecture and Planning
  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Systems
  • Natural Resource Management and Agriculture
  • Automotive and Transportation
  • Public Policy and Education

The South Campus represents millions of tax dollars invested and abandoned, but that could be resurrected in a true lesson of hands-on learning to sustain existing local resources. There are tens of thousands of square footage under roof and under-used. There are over 20 acres of wasteland, asphalt and scoured arroyos that can be made to bloom and feed with water harvested on the campus.

The most exciting thing about the new academy versus what the old Vo-Tech devolved into being before it was finally abandoned—a dumping ground of abused and neglected children—is that the academy will also most certainly appeal to our kids who believe it’s their life mission to do everything in their power to save the world.

Even “greening-up” professions like homebuilding and automotive will give a kid a belief that what they do and how they do it can have a positive effect on their community and the planet. That is a powerful message and a real incentive to stay in school, learn what interests them and graduate on time. And not just with a diploma but maybe even a degree or a certificate or college credits from Santa Fe Community College.

There is no question that under the leadership of Acting President Randy Grissom, SFCC will fully engage with the academy. Indeed, it is seen as the place that will feed those students who will populate the college’s world-class technical career paths in Green Building, Bio-Fuels, Solar Thermal and Photovoltaics. SFCC’s Advanced Trades and Technology Center is an incredible investment in our community that should be paid back by college-bound kids set on 21st-century career paths.

The academy is an ambitious plan on an even more ambitious schedule, if it hopes to open doors in August, 2014, serving 250 students. It will take years before South Campus can be brought back to an even greener glory than years past. But because of a determined group of community members devoting countless hours of focus and attention, the school board has determined to make it happen.

At a Feb. 10th study session of the School Board, a group that has been meeting regularly for the past six months to develop the concept and detailed plans for the academy made a presentation. Over 20 people spoke out in strong support, including teachers, students, business owners and concerned citizens.

Five key people were responsible for the presentation. They have worked to hammer out the details with a much broader coalition of community members behind them, none more important than the Santa Fe high school teachers who have dreamed for years about a project-based learning environment centered on sustainability education.

The five core community members are Paul Gibson, a recently arrived Santa Fean with 30 years of education consultancy behind him; Dana Richards, local educator and project-based-learning expert; Seth Biderman, native Santa Fe teacher and education thinker at the academy for the Love of Learning; Dr. John Graham, 40-year professor of psychiatry at the UNM School of Medicine; and myself. Santa Fe High teacher Tammy Harkin oversaw the group’s work through the eyes of the teachers who will make up the school’s initial teacher corps.

None of the academy’s ambitions would ever be realized without the full support and approval of all five school board members, as well as Superintendent Dr. Joel Boyd, along with his staff and administration. What will ultimately guarantee the success and sustainability of the academy will be the support of the community. And not just the “sustainability” community, but even those in our community who have not yet figured out how sustainability translates into their lives. Santa Fe needs this to succeed.


Kim Shanahan is executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.




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