School program may transform into early-college opportunity

Dana Richards, acting principal of Santa Fe Public Schools’ proposed Early College Opportunities program, said the new school will occupy the 25 acres of what was formerly referred to as the South Campus of Santa Fe High School. The district plans to open the school in the fall. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

One day in the early autumn of 2013, Santa Fe High School sophomore Dakota Torrez went to see his guidance counselor to ask her what he needed to do to drop out of school. While waiting outside her office, a question on a flier posted on the wall caught his attention.

The question: “Are you tired of falling asleep in class?”

The flier advertised the opening of the school’s then-new Academy for Sustainability Education, also known as ASE (pronounced “ace”). The academy is located on the South Campus of Santa Fe High in the former building-trades classrooms and has about 300 students enrolled.

Torrez became one of those students and will graduate this spring. A dropout-in-the-making, he had racked up a series of C’s and D’s in his classes, rarely feeling engaged until he entered ASE.

At ASE, he was taking part in monthly classroom trips to restore the Rio Grande by planting trees, creating a walkway and taking water samples, which kept him tuned in. Soon he was earning A’s and B’s, he said, and developed an interest in working on motor vehicles in ASE’s car repair program.

Torrez was one of about 20 people who spoke in favor of ASE’s metamorphosis into an early-college program, that, in partnership with the Santa Fe Community College, will give high-schoolers the chance to earn an associate degree by the time they graduate.

On Thursday, the school board voted in favor of opening the school, to be called Early College Opportunities, A Santa Fe Applied Science Magnet School, on the South Campus of Santa Fe High School next fall.

The school, intended to enroll up to 400 students in grades 9-12, will offer ASE-like career pathway training in clean, green construction, sustainable technologies, environmental sciences and greenhouse management. In an effort to maintain and increase Santa Fe High’s vocational and technical classes, welding and auto mechanics will be offered, too.

ECO is part of a recent trend in high school education that aims to better prepare students for college or a career straight out of high school while giving them a two-year head start on attaining a college degree.

The district just hired 54-year-old Dana Richards, a teacher in sustainable design and construction at ASE, as the principal of ECO at a salary of $85,000. He told the board that the school’s lengthy and somewhat unwieldy title was created “after being vetted by about nine million people.”

“The intention of the early college is to radically improve the attendance, graduation and engagement levels of students for whom the conventional education system has not been working,” Richards said Sunday. “And to offer young people free, two-year associate degrees.”

A 2013 American Institutes for Research study reported that students enrolled in early-college high schools are more likely to graduate, enroll in college and obtain associate degrees than students who do not take part in such programs.

Santa Fe High School sophomore Irie Charity wants that college degree before she graduates in two years.

“It’s important to me because I see seniors at the school who are struggling to just get out of high school while applying for college. I don’t want to worry about that as a senior,” Charity said Sunday.

She broke into tears during Thursday’s board meeting while recounting to the assembly how hands-on classes at the ASE school had given her direction and confidence while teaching her how to make a hand-woven bowl for her mother for Christmas. Her mother then stood up to say that Charity also made a baseball bat for her boyfriend.

“Nobody can make a baseball bat,” Charity’s mom said.

Richards told the school board Thursday that he thinks the school will cost about $10 million to get off the ground, including updating the south campus of Santa Fe High, but he stressed that was a “ballpark” estimate. Some of that capital-outlay funding will likely come from the school district’s next general obligation bond election in 2017. The state’s per-pupil funding formula will provide operational money.

Given the recent news that new state revenue in New Mexico is much lower than had been expected, the school district is aware that it will have to tighten its belt as it plans its budget for 2016-17. Board member Maureen Cashmon, who said ECO will provide a “great way” to give graduates a head start on college and save their families two years of tuition, nonetheless expressed concerns about the cost of the early-college program during Thursday’s board meeting.

But Richards said Sunday that the school is a financial win for students heading toward “failure, dropout, chronic truancy, not being college-ready. Those are all things that have direct and indirect negative financial repercussions.”

He said many details still need to be worked out, including staffing, building stronger ties with the community college (where some of the courses will be held, including at the Higher Education Center on Siringo Road near Santa Fe High School), and whether the new early college will eventually have to set up a lottery system to handle student enrollment over 400.

For now, ninth- and 10th grade students at ASE will be grandfathered into ECO next year. Santa Fe High juniors who will be moving into their senior year in 2016-17 will be absorbed into one of the other career academies currently running at Santa Fe High, though Richards said he is looking for “ways to keep them in the family.”

Students who are currently enrolled in eighth grade at other Santa Fe schools can also transfer into the Early College Opportunities campus.

Torrez won’t get to take advantage of it. He’s off to a WyoTech college in the fall to continue his interest in auto mechanics. He believes ECO will give hope to a lot of kids who are on the verge of giving up.

“Without this program, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” he told the school board Thursday. “I probably wouldn’t be here. I probably wouldn’t be at home. I would have dropped out of school in my sophomore year and tried to figure out my life from there.”

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or

On the Web

• For more information on the Early College Opportunities school, visit the Santa Fe Public Schools website at and click on the “Early College Opportunities” link.

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