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In the News: Proposed hands-on learning charter school aims to aid at-risk Santa Fe youth

Santa Fe-based nonprofit Earth Care New Mexico wants more hands-on learning for local youths who are falling through the cracks.

To help them, officials say they are considering applying to establish a charter school.

Earlier this month, organizers at the nonprofit took a preliminary step by filing a notice of interest in establishing a charter school called Community Leadership High School with the state Public Education Commission.

The school would focus on civic engagement and enroll up to 300 high schoolers between the ages of 16 and 21, said Earth Care co-director Miguel Acosta. Albuquerque-based nonprofit Future Focused Education would help design the school, according to the notice submitted by Earth Care.

The education organization hosts a network for “industry-focused” schools in Albuquerque, including ACE Leadership High School and Health Leadership High School.

Community Leadership High School would focus on civic leadership and attempt to reengage students who are falling behind or dropping out of Santa Fe Public Schools, Acosta said.

“The focus needs to be more on building capacity and community economic development and strong families and successful communities than it is on preparing students to do well in jobs and careers,” he said.

Earth Care’s proposal would place less emphasis on a brick-and-mortar school site and more on community-based projects around town rooted in the neighborhoods students live in, Acosta said.

Acosta hopes to see more project managers and civil servants born and raised in Santa Fe stay in the community. He said a new school is just one of many ways to achieve that.

“A big part of the work we’re doing is based on the premise that we need a solid civic infrastructure for things to run,” he said.

One example Acosta offered for Community Leadership High School would include students participating in a community development project Earth Care launched on Airport Road during the summer as part of the New Mexico Main Street initiative.

The project aims to amplify key livability factors such as health, housing and education along the south side corridor, where Earth Care said essential workers — many of them immigrants — reside.

“You start creating those kinds of initiatives, and if young people’s learning is connected to this work, they become the leaders of these initiatives,” Acosta said.

If Earth Care submits a charter school proposal to the Public Education Commission, it is due July 1.

Santa Fe’s graduation rate was 86 percent in 2020, with dozens of those graduates taking advantage of credit recovery programs or pandemic-era time extensions to make it to the finish line.

This year, the district is piloting a capstone program for students who “require a nontraditional program” to earn their diplomas at Santa Fe and Capital high schools, said Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez.

The Public Education Department recently approved different alternative assessments for students looking to graduate in New Mexico, and Acosta said that move away from traditional school is a step in the right direction.

“We were talking about this 15 years ago, and we’re very glad that it’s finally made it to that level,” Acosta said.

“ECO High School came out of the same kind of conversation.”

Acosta said that while Earth Care has a charter proposal ready, organizers are “more interested in working with the school district, and I think there’s plenty of opportunity for that to happen.”

Acosta said if Earth Care were to move forward with a charter school proposal, the group would like the school to be chartered by the district rather than the state.

“This is the first step in a lengthy process that concludes in the submission of an application,” Chavez said. “Until the application is submitted for review, it is difficult to project an impact on SFPS.

“We will explore all options and opportunities to address students who are not on track for graduation or who may have dropped out,” he added.

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