Ahhh, the milagro! And the irony. In a year in which a new battery of standardized tests was added to several existing ones, within a highly unsustainable climate of testing frenzy, it was a miracle that a real-world, hands-on problem- and project-based learning community of 12 teachers and about 300 students was able to launch Santa Fe High School’s first sustainability academy with some pretty impressive accomplishments.
Amidst walk-outs, teachers leaving mid-year and a completely new administrative team carrying forth a mandate to decrease dropout rates and increase student engagement through a new “academy model,” a team of dedicated teachers at the Academy for Sustainability Education (ASE) had an ambitious goal of taking on many projects and field studies that would demonstrate how to create a more sustainable world. Mostly located at SFHS’s South Campus, these projects are well on their way to becoming part of a “Green Trail” learning lab where students will become docents and teachers, inviting other schools and community members to tour, volunteer and participate in the academy’s activities and vision.
ASE’s main fundraiser and lead teacher, Dana Richards, resurrected SFHS’s Building Trades program by giving it a green makeover through teaching sustainable design and construction. He and his students are midway through building Santa Fe’s first solar charging station and a portable solar-PV trailer that will provide energy to a new student-built, solar sound studio. In addition, his classes are refurbishing the old amphitheater to encourage conscientious and educational “artivism”—art combined with activism. The hope is that next year’s students will begin creating and performing engaging music, music videos and, possibly, a radio station with live performances that promote all things sustainable. A mural/poetry project at the amphitheater, led by social-science teacher Jake Zgela and English teacher Tammy Harkins, has new and emerging murals and poems on its walls that display student-created art related to social and environmental justice. One wall will be dedicated to celebrating the natural beauty of New Mexico in both poetry and photography.
Science teacher Ty Middleton has taken her wildlife biology, botany and environmental sciences into the world of combining aqua- and hydroponics and has installed an aquaponics lab in the greenhouse. Fish waste will feed the plants in a hyper-efficient, closed-loop system that demonstrates how pesticide- and soil-free agriculture can yield higher production, as well as an overall healthier and more sustainable way of growing food that reduces water use and energy waste. Middleton invited students and teachers to a heartening release into the Pecos River of trout that had been raised all year in her classroom.
Teachers Tracy Akers, Daniel Rock and Bret Bernard have designed—for future installment—a small, on-campus wind turbine. The actual Green Trail will have signage for all these projects.
Transforming the conventional, stay-in-a-classroom, learn-in-a-vacuum-from-a-textbook model, ASE teachers have taken kids into the real world on numerous field studies and engaged them in community activism. These teachers have interfaced with the Sustainable Trades and Technology program at Santa Fe Community College and participated in events such as River Source’s “Securing our Climate and Water Future Summit,” which annually brings together students and teachers from schools statewide to participate in learning about public policy, lobbying at the Roundhouse, and networking to gain momentum in the world of sustainable education and community organizing. The Center for Contemporary Arts hosted several viewings of Chasing Ice, with discussions from oceanographer Steve Rudnik, awakening the perception of climate disruption’s reality in many students.
Teachers Tracy Akers, Scott Binkley and Tammy Harkins and their students held meetings with Santa Fe Mayor Gonzales and forums with community agencies regarding sustainable practices for the city. They participated in rallies and citizen-activism events, even testifying publicly at school board meetings, trials and committee meetings with state legislators to encourage practices in support of renewable energy and water conservation, and they have begun to draft ideas for better climate literacy among youth. Many of these decision makers, including judges and state and federal senators and representatives, want to continue to help build the capacity of the students to write bills and influence policy that promotes healthier and more robust community. Truly participating as a citizen is a far cry from simply memorizing facts about democracy!
Unfortunately, the nearly 30 days of standardized testing and scheduling snafus disrupted plans for student-sponsored events like a green car show, an eco-fashion show, an organic food fest and more live student performances. Maybe next year.
The general demographic of students in ASE comprises mostly those who have expressed how disengaged they feel with conventional public education and want something that connects them with the real world and experiential education. This is a trait that labels many of them as “at-risk” or “hard-to-reach” by traditional educators. However, the proof is in the pudding, and all the teachers involved have reported success stories, with students saying things like, “I would have dropped out, if it hadn’t been for ASE,” or “this kind of education should happen all over the place!” and, “I normally hate school, but I actually learned something that is important for me and the world.” Funny how a focus on sustainability and positive youth empowerment can spark the love of learning in all of us, ¿qué no?
All the new electives in ASE are dual credit and provide the beginnings of college or career pathways in renewable energy, green design and construction, green transportation and natural-resource management.
Community involvement and support needed this summer
This summer, many students will begin participating in a program with local community agencies and colleges related to green building. In an effort to promote more early-college programs that provide a step toward earned certificates and associates degrees, Dana Richards has brought an impressive group of local woodworkers as volunteers into his “shop.” Richards is reaching out to the Santa Fe community of builders and related trades to recruit more adult volunteers and elders to help students build an actual clean and green house that will be located across the street from SFHS near Chaparral Elementary.
This is a Herculean task for one teacher to take on. It will be to the students’ benefit if more community members get involved in ASE’s Sustainable Construction and Design projects, which will be unveiled in the fall as part of the Green Trail learning lab. If you’d like to help empower youth and support education toward a sustainable future, email Richards at email@example.com or Tammy Harkins at firstname.lastname@example.org