On a Friday morning in late March, two boys sit picking seeds from sunflowers they grew to feed their schools’ goats. In the greenhouse, a girl waters lettuce and other greens with a solution she made herself, designed to protect the produce from aphids. A pair of boys are in the milking parlor, expertly squeezing the udder of a dairy goat for milk that will be sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market the next day. In a cozy room with a fireplace and a sofa, a high school junior diligently does the work of a bookkeeper.
This is a standard day for the students at Camino de Paz Montessori Secondary School and Farm, which has 18 students in grades 7 through 12. One of its two campuses is an organic farm east of Española in Santa Cruz that Patricia Pantano, a teacher, co-founder and the educational director, refers to as a “living laboratory.” She says in addition to providing students with an education in traditional subjects, Camino de Paz aims to equip students with life skills through the hands-on experience of running a farm.
With school moved online for much of the past year, the number of New Mexico students being home-schooled increased by 127 percent during the pandemic. Judy Gibbs Robinson, the deputy communications director for the New Mexico Public Education Department, attributes this in part to the realization some parents came to: the idea that “their children needed a more hands-on approach that a family member could provide.”
This same sentiment leads some parents and their children to choose other nontraditional routes of education. Felix Mottoli, a 10th grader at Camino de Paz with aspirations to attend Sarah Lawrence College, says he chose Camino de Paz because “it’s very hands-on.” He adds that this experiential approach to learning was much more intriguing to him than the alternative of “sitting in classrooms, reading books and [being] on computers all day.”
Like home-schooling, Camino de Paz has also experienced increased enrollment during the pandemic. So has the Santa Fe Waldorf School. Matthew Burritt, a high school math and physical sciences teacher, as well as the Wilderness Program coordinator at Waldorf, estimates they have seen around a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in admissions throughout the pandemic.
Santa Fe Waldorf implements a different vision of hands-on learning than Camino de Paz, but with the same goal of equipping students through experience beyond the classroom. Through the High School Wilderness Program, each grade participates in an annual outdoors trip that culminates in seniors spending 24 hours alone in the Carson National Forest. This is intended to provide students the time and space to reflect on who they are and where they are going, Burritt says. He says these outdoor trips also aim to strengthen students’ connections with one another, nature and themselves.
Another differentiating aspect Waldorf employs that traditional education typically doesn’t is a block system. Even for Santa Fe Waldorf, this is a new approach adopted during the pandemic. Each month, students take a deep dive into a different subject that they devote their mornings to. Juniors have spent the past month exploring history through music. They also take two academic classes, which in March were math and science. They wrap up their day with an art class tied to their morning lesson; currently, students are constructing drums from logs.
While Waldorf and Montessori are two well-known educational philosophies, there are myriad others. Among these is an educational model developed by Shawn Secatero, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico. Secatero drew on his world travel and the knowledge of Cañoncito Navajo elders to develop the Corn Pollen Model. This educational model is based upon four pillars: physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being. The Corn Pollen Model stems from Secatero’s desire to “give people a sense of balance through education, well-being and leadership.” It is being implemented at the Native Educational Sovereignty in Teaching and Leadership Program at UNM, which was established in October.
Another initiative under the Corn Pollen Model is the Striking Eagle Native American basketball Invitational, or SENAI. Since 2011, SENAI has given over 3,000 high school students on Native high school basketball teams from New Mexico, Arizona and Utah a chance to participate in a basketball tournament at UNM. In addition, students attend a leadership conference that covers topics such as financial literacy, higher education, well-being and teaching as a career.
Due to COVID-19, SENAI was canceled in December. The pandemic has also taken a devastating toll on the Navajo elders who contributed so largely to this form of education, and much learning time in the classroom has been lost, but Secataro sees the pandemic as a pivotal moment for schooling. He views it as a “learning experience for us to rethink … education.”