Raquel Montoya was on track to drop out of high school.
As a student at Santa Fe High School in the mid-1980s, she recalls constantly showing up late to class when she wasn't playing hooky. School officials only allowed about five minutes of "passing time" between classes, and Montoya says the school was so big—with multiple buildings spread out over the campus—that it was nearly impossible to not be tardy.
"I wasn't really into it," she says. "I was failing and ditching and flunking."
But by her junior year, Montoya had enrolled full-time at Santa Fe Vocational Technical High School on the advice of her high school counselor. There, she remembers taking classes like Office Education, which lasted three hours and taught her everyday workplace skills such as shorthand, typing, filing and telecommunication.
Montoya credits her vo-tech education for helping her turn around her studies, graduate on time in 1987 and go on to earn her associate's degree in accounting. She still uses the skills she learned in vo-tech in her office job as an administrative assistant for the Santa Fe Area Homebuilders Association.
"It was more hands-on, more carrier-oriented to where you were learning something," she says.
Today, Santa Fe High School students don't have as many vo-tech options as students like Montoya once did. Auto collision and bodywork classes are among the only such courses still taught at the school.
A handful of local educators and community members are trying to change that by establishing an "Academy of Sustainability Education." The academy would have a "project-based learning" curriculum that proponents portray as vo-tech for the 21st century. This approach would primarily offer students trades-based career pathways in areas like green building, renewable energy systems, transportation and natural resource management.
For the past seven years, the idea for a "school of sustainability" has gone through fits and starts with the school district. Since Joel Boyd took over as superintendent in 2012, the district has warmed up to the idea of a sustainability school as a program within Santa Fe High School. It's now one component of the school district's "secondary school reform" plan.
Where the program actually ranks in that reform plan is another story.
Boyd has been busy championing an effort to establish a public-school International Baccalaureate program.
IB, a Switzerland-based education foundation that has offered curriculum in the American education system for more than 40 years, comes with a familiar philosophy in the education reform world—a focus on college preparation through rigorous homework and tests.
The IB effort will cost an estimated $400,000 to launch—of which the school board has already approved $85,000 in district spending—and serve roughly 300 students from grades 7-12 over a five-year period. Yet some point to a need for broader education options to truly tackle the 40 percent of public high school students in Santa Fe who don't graduate on time.
"There has been a group of people who have been struggling in town to really get the school district to understand it's not about just getting an IB program," says Kim Shanahan, executive director of the Homebuilders Association. "It's about getting the dropout rate down."
IB stands at odds with the hands-on curriculum of project-based learning. Over the past two decades, vo-tech education fell out of favor both locally and nationally as the college-preparation model became the norm.
"Twenty years ago it was state-of-the-art forward thinking," Shanahan says of vo-tech. "It devolved over time into a dumping ground for a philosophy that's, 'Every child in America should go to college.'" Dana Richards, a teacher at Desert Academy and the Institute of American Indian Arts, says vo-tech's downfall was partly because it was seen as a form of tracking.
Vo-tech, the stereotype goes, is where the rough students who weren't going to go to a four-year university after high school would end up. But since then, a void has grown. In a 2011 survey by Civic Enterprises and the Corporate Voices for Working Families, 53 percent of business leaders reported that their company faced major challenges in recruiting properly trained non-managerial employees.
Richards, who is also pushing for the Academy of Sustainability, says that when public schools dismantled vo-tech, there wasn't consideration about how to rebuild it in a more effective manner.
Capital High School has already begun to rebuild its career-focused curriculum. There, students are required to take classes in either the art, business, digital design and medical "academies" that have an emphasis, according to Boyd, on making school "more relevant for kids" by giving them an identity on campus.
Some point to the high dropout rate as proof that it's time to move aggressively with something new. Shanahan, for example, says his home building trades industry is turning into "a bunch of aging white guys."
"We look to the future and wonder who is training not just the workers, but the future small business owners," he says.
Michael Hagele, the district's secondary school reform facilitator, maintains that the IB program won't come at the expense of a sustainability academy.
"I definately don't see them as competing, but complimentary," he says.
The district has tentatively agreed to establish the sustainability academy, which would use the buildings on the south of Santa Fe High where Santa Fe Vocational Technical once thrived. But in many ways, the program is still in a preliminary phase. SFPS will spend the rest of this month identifying student interest in the academy, Boyd says.
The district has not earmarked any money from the upcoming budget for the program.
Tammy Harkins, a Santa Fe High School teacher who's married to Richards and is also a proponent of project-based learning, says she's hoping the district will fund the initiative with part of a $130 million general obligation bond approved by voters last year.
Backers say the academy would serve 250 students from grades 7-12 and cost $1 million to establish.
Montoya, for her part, has seen her three sons go through different high school experiences including a job corps and a charter school. "Everybody learns in a different way," she says.