One of the best things the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association did in recent years was get behind the resurrection of trades-based education for Santa Fe Public Schools. Such education had reached its nadir a decade ago, both locally and nationally.

For decades, America’s laudable consensus had been that all kids deserved a college education. The unintended consequence was the effective abandonment of vocational education. Vo-tech became politically incorrect. Its remnants often became a dumping ground for kids, mostly boys, with learning difficulties, emotional difficulties or socioeconomic difficulties.

Before Santa Fe began increasing its graduation rates a few years ago, we were seeing nearly half of our young people fail to graduate. The cause and effect of trades-based education abandonment and dismal graduation rates was undeniable.

We learned a lot by engaging homebuilders with education professionals — especially on the concept of pedagogy, which in effect marries curriculum to a better understanding of students and their individual needs.

The pedagogy best suited for trades education turns out to be something called project-based learning. Simply put, it’s the notion that all core subjects — English, history, math, science and social studies — can be woven into a curriculum that includes specific trades, like homebuilding and construction.

The second important notion of project-based learning is that some kids simply cannot learn if their school day mandates they sit alertly in their seat, face forward and pay attention to a teacher and a board — even if it’s a high-tech smartboard.

Reading difficulties are believed to be more prevalent in boys. Dyslexia, like autism, occurs on a spectrum from mild to severe. If you get three or four homebuilders together, including many who are now very successful, it’s inevitable that one or more will sheepishly admit to reading difficulties as a kid. Getting put in the “slow” readers group is stigmatizing and often leads to disruptive behavior.

Imagine if your entire school experience involves feeling inadequate. Imagine you have socioeconomic issues or poverty issues and you’re a kid who qualifies for the free lunch program. Imagine that when you’re in high school, you decide to end the torment by simply dropping out. It happens. A lot.

Sooner or later, you either get in trouble and wind up in the juvenile justice system, or maybe you wake up after starting a family and realize learning a trade is something you can do and you’re good at. We don’t need to have kids become young adults before the realization occurs. We can find struggling students and offer them opportunities in school that speak to needs and innate skills.

Santa Fe did the right thing a few years ago and created Early College Opportunities, an applied science magnet high school adjacent to Santa Fe High. It created “articulation agreements” with Santa Fe Community College so motivated students can earn a high school diploma and an associate degree in their trade by the time they are 18 or 19.

These kids are “college bound” with SFCC student ID cards while still in high school — turning on its head the idea that “all kids are not destined for college.”

ECO is still fragile and needs the full-throated support of Santa Fe and its school administration. It’s slated to get $10 million from the 2017 capital improvements bond to resurrect a derelict and dormant building on the campus. That’s good news. And if it helps kids, it’s also good education.

Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.

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