March 2016

New School Combines Sustainability, Closing the Achievement Gap and Free College for Santa Fe Public School Students

Dana Richards

On a cold evening in January, the Santa Fe Public Schools’ Board of Education gave the Early College Opportunities School proposal a warm reception. After a 5-0 vote to approve the district’s newest high school, director Steve Carrillo said, “It feels like this might be one of the greatest things we’ve ever done. The legacy of this could turn out to be of historic significance.” Thirty students, parents and community partners testified to the value of the new school during a lengthy public forum that brought many of those present to tears.


ECO, the Early College Opportunities Applied Science Magnet School, is ramping up for an August 2016 opening, with students in grades nine, 10 and 11. Early College is a nationally trending model that allows students to pursue certifications and associate degrees while they complete their high school diplomas.

The school will occupy the 25-acre site now known as South Campus or Vo-Tech, between Zia Road and the Arroyo Chamiso, adjacent to Santa Fe High School. The site includes woodshops, automotive shops, welding, construction, greenhouse and aquaponics facilities. In partnership with Santa Fe Community College (SFCC), classrooms and other space at the nearby Higher Education Center (HEC) will also be utilized. Rebecca Estrada, executive director of the HEC, has been key in coordinating SFCC leadership and staff to facilitate alignment between the two institutions.

The genesis of the new school reflects interrelated efforts. Superintendent Joel Boyd and SFCC President Randy Grissom collaborated to advance the school as a critical piece of SFPS’ secondary reform plan and as a way to develop a bridge to SFCC’s world-class Sustainable Technology program and facilities. The idea of a magnet school of sustainability was also pitched to the district multiple times during the last seven years as a result of collaborative efforts on the part of Santa Fe High teachers (including Marcia Barton and Ty Middleton), educational consultants and community partners Paul Gibson, John Graham, Seth Biderman, Kim Shanahan and Kenneth Francis. Lynn Bickley of the Interfaith Coalition, Janet Bailey and Miguel Acosta were also key to helping move the effort along while making sure it has depth and is accessible to all sectors of the community.

The school is an outgrowth of the Academy for Sustainability Education (ASE), a 300-student program of study at Santa Fe High. Tammy Harkins, a dedicated sustainability educator and a guiding force behind ASE, has demonstrated how important rapport, personalization and relevance are to student motivation and achievement. Her ability to employ emotional intelligence, reach deeply into students to tap their hopes and aspirations, and create a joyous community of engaged learners has been a primary factor in launching the new school.

Student Dylan Ramírez says, “I’m moving, along with many other ASE students, into the new ECO School. I have been very lucky to be part of this kind of learning, with its many projects and field trips. My mentorship and all the tools will definitely serve me in the future. This school provides all kinds of green opportunities, like solar power and aquaponics.” Student Irie Charity says, “I’m excited about the challenge of getting college credit and learning serious skills and content through projects. I am a visual and hands-on learner. I want to be in a school where motivated students tackle serious projects that make a difference in the world.” Current ninth-grader Annette Salas Morales said, “I love hands-on learning. I’ve learned so much about solar energy, sustainable agriculture, aquaponics and how important it is to lower our carbon footprint. I look forward to building my own Tiny Home.”

The school has six main goals:

  • Close the achievement gap

  • Increase literacy in the intellectual and hands-on aspects of sustainability

  • Provide free, dual-credit certifications and applied science degrees

  • Build workforce readiness and create human and practical connections between school, mentors and the world of work

  • Make the learning community a vital and welcoming center for students, educators, families, business partners and social service providers

  • Use innovative pedagogy, scheduling and leadership norms to attract and retain world-class educators and partners, and become a national model of what can be done within public school districts

Closing the Achievement Gap

The achievement gap is shameful, personally degrading to many youth, and one of the reasons local economies and the national economy cannot keep pace with the needs and norms of the new millennium.


Big schools often take a certain amount of failure, segregation, violence, vandalism, burnout and alienation for granted. Teachers and students are left to figure out how to fit into the cookie-cutter. Some enjoy school and do well. Some do well, as measured by GPA and test scores, but don’t really connect with the learning process. A large number of students neither do well nor engage in the process. Day after day, they walk the edge of despair, self-loathing, indifference and misplaced emotion. They are frequently absent, tuned-out, dropping out, and unable to plug into constructive local, state or national communities and economies.

ECO’s school design flips the dynamic. Instead of kids stressing to adapt to the cookie-cutter, ECO’s network of educators is taking on the design and implementation challenge of adapting learning experiences to the needs and wants of the students. The same students who are disengaged and disruptive in a conventional learning environment often proves to be a motivated leader if given opportunities to tell their story, learn their way and engage with activities they find relevant.  

In a small, personalized learning community, it is not accepted or assumed that there will be a 50 percent truancy or failure rate. The ECO School will demonstrate that public school districts are capable of delivering a relevant and effective learning culture to underserved and underutilized youth.


Is it possible to have a 4.6 GPA, ace your ACTs and SATs, nail the PARCC, kill on your AP exams, be deadly on your DEAs, eviscerate the EOCs, rout the SBA and still be ecologically illiterate? Alas, the answer is yes. While a state education department might be able to accept that disconnect, the biosphere and local economies cannot. We are in the middle of an ebbing tide in public education funds. Why? Because the capricious nature of the fossil-fuel economy is out of our hands. This is just one reason why a planned new-energy, sustainability economy is critical to the health of our communities, especially in New Mexico, where economic strength is not about a few large corporate employers but rather about a resilient network of small businesses and public institutions.

The ECO School is committed to cultivating literacy in the intellectual and hands-on aspects of sustainability. Good education is by nature revolutionary, or at least evolutionary. Even though we still test for the thinking that produced the problems students will inherit, we don’t have to keep teaching with it.

The educators who are lining up to be part of this new school are “thought partners” when it comes to figuring out how to infuse sustainability into all aspects of the curriculum. SFCC partners like Camilla Bustamante, Amanda Hatherly, Luke Spangenburg, Xubi Wilson, Shawn Miller and Adam Cohen are especially well-suited to provide coaching in cutting-edge theory and practice, when it comes to sustainable technologies. In the ECO School, sustainability will apply equally to technology, modes of thought, leadership, teacher stress, wrap-around and interdisciplinary approaches to project-based learning.

Everyone is College Material

Even by those with compassionate intentions, I’ve heard it said many times: “Some people just aren’t college material.” In ECO, we want to redefine and recontextualize the idea of “college material.” Through SFCC and other accrediting postsecondary institutions we are happy to offer all ECO students free dual-credit certifications and two-year associate degrees. This is both an equity issue and a way to ground college in applied science, with powerful connections to careers and real-world problems. We want ECO graduates to be leaders, entrepreneurs and equipped thinkers about complex problems, and we know that engaged college can play a key role in the process of developing those capacities.


Workforce Readiness Revisited

If we are not careful, workforce readiness means technical training for cogs in an impersonal and overly hierarchical factory system. In fact, many have argued persuasively that our schools most closely resemble Industrial Age factories, with their emphasis on specialization and the isolation of learning. The green-collar economy is a movement toward a sustainable economy, but it is also a movement from dead-end blue-collar jobs for a permanent underclass to meaningful career pathways and life-long learner traits for valued members of society.

Workforce readiness in ECO means mentoring, apprenticeship, character development, rites of passage, self-reliance and a pragmatism that the world of work brings to the learning process. When I taught sustainable design and construction, I had a running segment called “What the Boss Is Thinking.” It was a kind of reality check for students to get a sense of how work can be radically different from abstract education. 

Core ECO partner and executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Homebuilders Association, Kim Shanahan, says, “We don’t just need tradesmen and tradeswomen; we need young people with leadership and management skills, entrepreneurs and problem solvers, to grow and maintain Santa Fe’s aging but sophisticated green building sector.”

Learning Community as Extended Family

My most effective and meaningful school and work communities have functioned like extended families. When students, staff, parents and community partners feel a deep sense of support and belonging, great things happen. I’ve had students say they look forward to Monday, when they will be back in a supportive, safe and engaging learning community/family.

We will have check-ins, advisories, cohorts and regular rituals that are based on an asset rather than deficit approach to capacity building and belonging. Regular appreciation events, sharing food, service work and proactive norms around communication and conflict resolution, will be key to fostering the trust, joy and personalization that are essential to real belonging.

We will have a parent center on campus, a community garden and a series of workshops and skills exchanges for parents and extended family to share and network, using our gathering spaces and shops.

A student success triangle consists of 1) peer culture, 2) home life and 3) school. The less healthy and supportive any leg of the triangle is, the higher functioning the others must be to maintain student health. 

One of the factors leading to declining student health and success is the erosion of family and the ascent of a mass-media-fixated peer culture. While connecting with families is certainly an important part of a vital school, sometimes a school becoming a healthy surrogate family and a center for the development of healthy peer culture is key to a child’s success.

The New that is Old that is New

ECO’s emphasis on sustainable technology is a big part of the innovation in what we teach, but equally important is the innovation in how we teach and learn. We complain about the lack of attention span that students possess, but we fragment education through an artificial schedule and through siloed subjects: a “do now” to control the restlessness at the beginning of class; an agenda on the wall because students don’t remember where they are at from one day or one class to the next; a staccato onslaught of bells and PA interruptions all through the day. They may create a superficial level of order and organization, but they don’t promote concentration or ownership.

The ECO schedule is based on two influences: losing track of time and the real world of the workplace. I’ve been fortunate enough to have numerous experiences with students in which we have lost track of time: planting trees, restoring ecosystems, building houses, listening to elders tell stories and teach practical skills, high-schoolers teaching younger students, building and maintaining community gardens, making furniture, installing solar panels, painting murals, reading a captivating book out loud, playing teambuilding games, backpacking and cross-country skiing in remote areas, and going off in pairs or alone to reflect, draw or journal write. In ECO, we want the schedule and the methodology to promote that kind of deep learning experience.

As a rite of passage, we want students to sink their teeth into the learning and creating process and to develop endurance and concentration in ways that will serve them in a well-led workplace.

We want to bring mentoring and apprenticeship back into the mainstream of the educational process. Time and time again, we have seen students shine and flourish when they have one or more healthy adult relationships that anchor them emotionally, technically and intellectually.

These are, on one level, new and experimental ideas. They are also old practices that were abandoned when industrialization affected every corner of our modern lives. In this sense, we are building on three of the traditions that make New Mexico and Santa Fe so special and unique: valuing relationships, valuing place and balancing head, heart and hands.

Finally, a new twist on an old adage. Everyone is now familiar with the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.” But, as we in ECO reach out to you, our fellow villagers, we want to remind you that it also takes a child to raise a village. During the last year and a half, I have worked with more than a dozen volunteers, like Dave Wahl, Bob Siegel, Alan Becker, Bruce Kohl and Roger Miller, who have, in addition to making a difference in the lives of their mentees, been themselves transformed by the mentorship process. The work needed to close the achievement gap and to combat ecological illiteracy is the work that is needed to build a resilient and economically viable local community. With this in mind, I encourage you to partner up or volunteer within the ECO learning community and help us reach our quota of 100 partners and volunteers in our inaugural year.

To learn more, volunteer or enroll a student, call Dana Richards at 505.690.5500, email or go to:

Dana Richards is acting principal of ECO: The Santa Fe Applied Science Magnet School.

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