November 2016

Early College Opportunities School

A Student’s Perspective


Article by Irie Charity

Photos by Marisol Sandoval



Early College Opportunities (E.C.O.), the new high school in Santa Fe, is located where the old Vo-Tech school used to be. E.C.O. offers unique opportunities for students to learn through hands-on, real-world projects. The school is teaching us to open our minds and hearts. After only 10 weeks, we are developing a new sense of how education can work to make our lives and communities better.


When asked what makes E.C.O different, one student replied, “I come to E.C.O because I want to own my auto shop one day. Through the auto pathway, I get to learn core studies like math and English, but my teachers also show me how one needs to learn math to be able to find the correct measurements in building or rebuilding a vehicle.” Another student said, “I have attended many schools and E.C.O is by far the best. Mr. Richards, the principal, makes sure that every student is doing fine. I have never been welcomed like that.” A third student said that this is the first school he has managed to stay in for more than a month without getting kicked out and that he actually likes to be there. “The teachers care about not only what you learn, but also who you are and how you can grow.”


Many students struggle with traditional learning in the classroom where the projects are simulated and only for the teachers’ eyes. E.C.O. students create projects for themselves and their future, for the community—for a real audience, so it’s much more motivating. E.C.O gets students out of our seats working with community members to learn and do things that can help solve help some of our biggest problems, such as homelessness and poverty, or impact climate change.


Teachers here have to figure out how not to lecture and do bookwork and worksheets for more than two-hour blocks and instead get the kids to take back their own education and learn by doing. For example, building a tiny home or creating a farm, aquaponics lab or a solar car are all projects that help solve issues. Students are starting to talk about self-reliance, a green economy and lowering our carbon footprint. We have group projects that teach about collaboration. There are projects like a solar sound studio that give students the chance to have a voice. We are creating “artivist” murals on interior and exterior walls. A Zen garden teaches both xeriscaping and Zen philosophy. School can get stressful and these things can be therapy.


We’re rebuilding a chicken coop and bringing in a beehive for our farm and garden where students are constructing a horno from adobe bricks made from dirt on campus. Groups of students are looking at the way we eat and working to provide locally grown food. Some are designing and putting up a smoothie stand.


I heard one proud parent say, “My kid has started to talk about how he will be able to show the Zen garden he made to his children. I wasn’t thinking like that when I was his age. I am amazed.” Another parent said, “Thank you for saving my kid’s love for learning, which she was really starting to lose. I feel like she has found a second home.” Parents are excited to have their students blend E.C.O. classes with college classes at Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) in order to get their general education or pursue associate’s degrees by starting college early and for free.


We’ve got a “Get Out and Go” program to get the students away from electronics and distractions and out into a natural environment. We took 60 students to the golden aspens at the ski basin. Half of them had never been up there or into the wilderness. While we were there, we read about the pine and aspen die-off because of climate change and talked about Nature Deficit Disorder (which adds to the stress of being a teenager) and the Leave No Child Inside Act.


We also spent the first week of school touring local colleges like SFCC and the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, exploring careers and pathways that some of us have already started to enroll in through dual-credit classes. This month we will go to UNM to sample classes and tour with current students. Many of our students have never thought about going to college, or even thought it was possible, until now.  


E.C.O. gets students out of their comfort zones and is right alongside them as they develop skills, a strong voice and come to see that they have a lot to contribute as they gain a new awareness of what is happening in the outside world.


Another thing we are doing differently is to create a restorative justice program on our campus that rethinks the idea of “punishment by suspension” and considers service learning, teen mentoring and ways we can rehabilitate the whole system. We have many kids who struggle with their home lives as they face poverty, violence and challenges that don’t allow them to be young teenagers who need an education.


We see ourselves as a big growing family, and we want to make a difference in our lives and in the world. We already see it happening, but it will take a lot of dedication, work and support from our outside community as well. As we help ourselves, we are helping others and are changing the way education can be done.



For more information about the E.C.O. school, email Tamela Harkins:


Irie Charity and Marisol Sandoval are students at the Early College Opportunities School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.





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