Inside Santa Fe Public Schools’ newest building, the $30.3 million Milagro Middle School, a life skills classroom for special-education students is equipped with a washer, dryer and stove. A sensory room with dimmed lights, sound barriers and comfortable seating is designed to help calm autistic students.

And, unlike the previous De Vargas Middle School, built at the same site on Llano Street in the 1970s and razed two years ago, Milagro has science labs with sinks, vents and endless possibilities for experiments.

The naturally lit hallways and classrooms of the brand-new building, which welcomed more than 620 students for the first day of classes Tuesday, are filled with state-of-the-art features.

“When I walked into the new building, I could immediately see it’s more modern and with more space for students,” eighth grader Dillin Gonzalez-Sosa said in Spanish.

But when it comes to learning, does a new building with upgraded equipment help improve student performance?

The answer to that question is complicated. Educators and school leaders say a new building might not increase students’ test scores, but it does improve teachers’ ability to do their jobs, and it can help create a more favorable mindset for learning.

Five years ago, the district opened two new schools, El Camino Real Academy and Nina Otero Community School, touting the facilities’ expanded classrooms, increased space for special-education students, computer labs and interactive whiteboards. For two years in a row, in 2016-17 and 2017-18, El Camino Real and Nina Otero received F’s from the state.

The state has not released public school performance evaluations for 2018-19 due to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decision to end the controversial A-F grading system implemented under her predecessor. The state Public Education Department plans to post new school rankings in November.

Still, Jakob Lain, principal of El Camino Real Academy, said in an interview with The New Mexican earlier this year that the more modern facilities at his school have benefited educators and students.

“It helps staff morale when the classrooms are set up in a way that works with education practices that have changed since the 1970s or 1980s,” he said. “For differentiated instruction, teachers need furniture, technology and spaces that are set up for that.”

Milagro, which opened two years ago in the old Capshaw Middle School building after the district merged the students at Capshaw and De Vargas, received an F from the state in its first year.

In spring 2019, less than 5 percent of Milagro students showed proficiency in math, and about 21 percent scored proficient in language arts on standardized exams. Those numbers are far lower than the statewide averages of 20 percent proficiency in math and 33 percent in reading, according to state data.

Demographics of the school from 2018-19 show it fits in with a number of schools in the Santa Fe district that struggle the most on proficiency exams: It has a higher rate of special-education students than the state and national average at about 24 percent; 17 percent of its students are English-language learners; and nearly three-quarters receive free and reduced-price lunches, a federal indicator of poverty.

Referring to the new Milagro campus, seventh grade English teacher Susan Nichols asked, “Is it automatically going to make students better readers? No,” she said. “Is it going to transform and turn a teacher with poor classroom management into an awesome teacher? Probably not.

“But even with something as minor as desks that can move around the classroom,” Nichols said, “does the new building facilitate my ability to accommodate all types of learning styles? Absolutely.”

Her old classroom in the former Capshaw school had old desks that were connected to chairs, Nichols said. Now her students can work on standing desks or roll them around to talk in groups.

History teacher Aaron Abeyta said he now has a Smart Board to show interactive maps of faraway places his class is studying.

Robotics teacher Mark Miller said in 16 years of teaching in both Boston and Española, he often has had to dumpster-dive for parts, but now his classroom is fully stocked.

Milagro Principal Brenda Korting said the 626 seventh and eighth graders who showed up for Milagro’s first day are empowered by these improvements.

The first-day enrollment is an increase of about 20 percent — or 100 kids — for Milagro.

“Socio-emotionally, the kids feel more valued in a building like this,” Korting said. “I keep saying, ‘Santa Fe cares so much about you, so they decided they wanted to build you a beautiful school.’ If we want to say we care about education in this town, we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is, and what better way than a new school building like this?”

Korting spent most of Tuesday afternoon directing confused middle-schoolers to the cafeteria — “down the hall and to the right” — or to their science classroom on the second floor.

Students who had felt cramped in the Capshaw building, which lacked specialized classrooms, sufficient bathrooms and even windows, said the new, spacious Milagro might be a little disorienting but certainly has the potential to improve the outlook for education.

“I could tell it’s an environment in which we can learn a lot more,” said Gonzalez-Sosa, the eighth grader.

“It’s a lot different,” he added. “Before, there were too many students in small spaces and sometimes you couldn’t learn very well.”

Gonzalez-Sosa also said students are excited about expanded extracurricular activities and athletics at Milagro, and the school’s walking distance to nearby housing and apartment complexes.

Gabe Romero, facilities director for Santa Fe Public Schools, said the construction project was completed within its budget. Most of the work was done by general contractor Bradley Stamm.

Initially, the school board chose the De Vargas Middle School site for the merger project because they hoped to preserve parts of the old building. Later, however, district officials opted to raze the campus.

While teachers and students said they felt the impact of the new building on the first day, Korting said she hopes the new school’s affect on students follows them past eighth grade.

“Some students in their personal lives have never met a scientist, and they’ve never been to a science lab,” she said. “So before coming here, they may have always loved science, but they had no idea becoming a scientist was an option in life. This opens a window they did not even know existed.”