ECO gives disengaged students ‘a reason to stay in school’

ECO gives disengaged students ‘a reason to stay in school’
Posted on 08/17/2037

ECO gives disengaged students ‘a reason to stay in school’

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican | Posted: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 11:35 pm

Just down the hill from Santa Fe High School, on a part of its grounds long known as the South Campus, the mechanical humming of wood saws and adolescent voices emanated from new portable classrooms.

A green-and-purple spiral insignia was stamped on every door, indicating the buildings belonged to Early College Opportunities, or ECO, Santa Fe Public Schools’ newest magnet school.

About 170 students, a dozen teachers and 15 volunteers showed up Wednesday — the first day of school districtwide — for the launch of ECO, a combined high school and college program seven years in the making and an offshoot of traditional vocational education.

One student, Malik Fielder, 17, started the day at Santa Fe High but said it didn’t feel right, “So I walked across the street and signed up.”

Fielder, who moved to Santa Fe from Las Cruces two months ago, said school has been a challenge for him. But he was attracted to ECO’s solar-powered music studio and friendly environment. “This gives me a reason to stay in school,” he said.

Dana Richards, ECO’s co-founder and acting principal, said, “Our big goal here is to give the ownership of education back to the students.”

Through a partnership with Santa Fe Community College and other state colleges and universities, Santa Fe Public Schools’ website says, ECO is holding some classes at the nearby Higher Education Center, offering dual-credit certifications and associate degrees in fields such as auto repair, construction, welding, greenhouse management and renewable energy. It is now open to ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders and aims to eventually enroll some 400 students.

The school hopes to draw students who have become disengaged at traditional high schools, such as Santa Fe High, which has a graduation rate of less than 70 percent and a high truancy rate.

ECO can offer them a different kind of learning, Richards said, and in return, they can help meet employment needs in the community.

“The ‘read-the-classics’ curriculum didn’t work for most of these students,” he said of those who skip classes or drop out altogether. “If it had, we wouldn’t need this school.”

The magnet school developed from a Santa Fe High program called the Academy of Sustainable Education. Many of the students from that program signed up for ECO.

In the past few years, accelerated college programs have emerged in 32 states and enroll more than 80,000 kids, many of whom are low-income, minority students and will be the first in their family to attend college. About 90 percent of the high school students in these programs earn a diploma.

ECO, the 12th program of this kind to launch in New Mexico, opened this week at a cost of $900,000. Richard says another $1.1 million is needed to keep it going. He also hopes to beef up the ranks of volunteers at ECO.

Students in the “immersive learning” classes focus on a specific project, like woodworking or renewable energy, and study English or math as a part of the effort, learning to apply those skills in a working environment.

“We are not trading how to sweat weld with how to read, but we are trying to juice the learning,” Richards said.

A hand-held radio buzzed at his side, and he was called to assist with a classroom problem.

The first day at ECO had a few snags, but Richards wasn’t fazed.

He found two frazzled teachers and a frustrated volunteer, tasked with orchestrating a watershed craft project. The 24 students in the classroom had refused to break into groups. “The first thing I notice is it’s stuffy in here,” Richards said. He suggested the kids move their desks outside.

The volunteer opposed the idea, shaking her head emphatically. “It won’t work,” the woman said.

Richards suggested she leave.

She began to gather her belongings. “I’ll volunteer somewhere else,” she said.

Within minutes, the students’ desks were set up in the parking lot and the lesson continued. One student in each group was taking notes, though somewhat reluctantly.

“A lot of these students are used to regular schools and acting out for attention,” English teacher Tonya Titus said. “We are trying to convey to them that they need to act more like college students.”

“It’s a challenging gig,” Richards said. Focusing on confidence, positive reinforcement and structure is key to making it work, he added. “Most of the time, they will meet you there.”

Junior Shania Hicks, 16, who participated in Santa Fe High’s sustainability academy, said she already sees ECO as a place where she is supported, “not judged.”

“I can’t stay seated in a seat and just listen to a teacher and go home with homework that I don’t even know how to do because they didn’t teach me,” she said.

“These teachers definitely care about us as individuals. … They care about our emotions, not just the paperwork.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or

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