There is a mix of scenery at the Early College Opportunities High School — products of time and necessity.
The auto shop and woodworking classes are remnants of when the small campus was home to the vocational program for nearby Santa Fe High School. Newer bungalows house students learning about computer science.
The rumbling of machinery signals what’s to come for the expanding school.
From any given place on the campus, which serves 125 students, looms the long shadow of Santa Fe High, the “big brother on the hill,” as Principal Joshua Rhine calls it. In some ways, ECO still feels attached to the district’s large high school through old buildings that still bear its name.
The school, where students work toward a diploma while earning professional certifications and associate degrees through dual-credit higher education courses, kicked off construction last month of its $20.6 million expansion project. This will allow it to accommodate 425 students — almost triple its current capacity — and expand its core class offerings like English and social studies. Administrators at Santa Fe Public Schools hope this is the start of a new identity for ECO, which has struggled since its start in 2016.
At its inception, there wasn’t much clarity of ECO’s mission, said Rhine, the school’s third principal. The district’s capital investment in the school and increased community interest show it is moving in the right direction, he added.
“It would just make it feel more comfortable. … It’s an older facility, older desks, older chairs,” Rhine said. “It shows that the community is investing in them and the project and the school. I think they wouldn’t have put any money behind the project to expand the school if there wasn’t a need for this program and we weren’t having some success.”
ECO got off to a rocky start when it opened. It received an “F” rating in its state evaluation that year, though New Mexico no longer uses a grading system to rank school success. Data from the New Mexico Public Education Department shows achievement rates at the school remain far below state and district averages, with 26 percent of students who took statewide standardized tests scoring in the range of proficiency for reading in spring 2022 and 26 percent in science. Too few students participated in math tests to determine results, the data shows.
The school’s graduation rate fell sharply this spring to 66 percent, down from 84 percent in spring 2021, a trend that was consistent at other alternative high schools in the district.
Bringing in more core classes per semester is the first goal of the expansion, Rhine said, though the school considers adding other vocations to its offerings.
ECO is not immune from the nationwide teacher shortage. Educators there must be able to teach all grades of a core subject.
“We believe the way to expand is adding core teachers first,” Rhine said. “If you go into the core classes, they’re traditional sized, mid-20s, upper 20s. … There’s this misconception that it’s a small school so their class size is smaller.”
Administrators said the expansion also will give students a bigger workspace for certain hands-on classes. A building that now stands empty will be used to create a connected campus core where the administrative offices, media room, student lounge and cafeteria will intersect.
“What’s unique and exciting is that we’re reusing a building that hasn’t been used in many years to show kids and the district that we don’t want to throw away what’s already good,” said Gabe Romero, director of executive operations at the district. “We can adapt to our need and use it as is.”
The building project will give students some things they’ve never had previously, like a gym for schoolwide assemblies, guest presentations and college recruitment events. Rhine hopes this will bring a sense of unity.
“There are a lot of elements of a traditional high school that will be added when we get the new facility that these guys are missing out on,” he said.
The investment in ECO is a part of a larger effort by Santa Fe Public Schools to boost performance at its alternative high schools and change a public misconception that such schools are intended for underperforming students; instead, the district aims to offer a variety of choices for students.
ECO, for instance, is geared to help students enter the workforce immediately after high school graduation. Desert Sage Academy draws students who thrive in an online learning environment, and Mandela International Magnet School is for students seeking an International Baccalaureate program.
“It really goes along with the idea of reevaluating what our students’ interests are,” Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said, “whether it’s to enter the workforce or go on to college. We want to provide them with the type of environment to make them successful.”
ECO is looking to partner with more of the local business community to determine what kind of job opportunities are out there for students post-graduation. It hopes to help fill vacancies at businesses struggling to hire and get students on track with a job as soon as possible. The school may also partner with Habitat for Humanity to give its students interested in construction trades some real-world experience — potentially building houses on district-owned land.
Rhine said teachers and administrators will do everything they can to meet students at their level to help them succeed, but ECO is not a place for disengaged students. It’s a place for students who are looking for job experience or want to pursue a trade.
“We’re not a backup plan; we’re just another option,” he said. “We offer something different just like the other schools have their own identity. No one wants to be a backup plan. We want to be the choice. We want students to attend ECO for a reason.”