Most of the more than 13,200 children who attend Santa Fe Public Schools returned from summer vacation last week. SFR visited three schools to observe how the city's lopsided demographic trends, which see wealthier neighborhoods near the Plaza continue to age while young families with children drive residential development in southwestern Santa Fe, are reflected inside the classroom.

The six primary schools in the SFPS Southside region—including Amy Biehl Community School, Nina Otero Community School, César Chávez Elementary, Sweeney Elementary, Ramirez Thomas Elementary and Piñon Elementary—almost exclusively serve their surrounding neighborhoods, which has seen a 57 percent increase in the population of children that are pre-K to sixth grade-age since 2002, according to the district. They also average out to 88.2 percent Latino. These are some of the most crowded schools in the district.

In contrast, there was only a 5 percent increase in pre-K to sixth grade-aged children over the same time period in the neighborhoods around Acequia Madre, Wood Gormley and Atalaya, clustered near Canyon Road in the district's Northeast region. The student populations of these three schools, which consistently receive high marks from the state, are largely comprised of students who don't live in their surrounding areas but transfer in under a district policy. They average out to about half non-Hispanic white.

Like Northeastern schools, student numbers at Nava, EJ Martinez and Chaparral have also declined because of an aging population, but they haven't seen a similar demand from parents living elsewhere in Santa Fe to transfer their children into them. Latino students make up about 75 percent of the population at those three schools. Last year, the district proposed closing Nava and leasing out the EJ Martinez facility for the state-run Turquoise Trail Charter School, but the board ultimately voted against the plan at the end of May due to public outcry.

Some research has shown that smaller class sizes can produce better learning outcomes for lower grade levels, and in Santa Fe, Southside schools are far more crowded than their counterparts in the central and northern parts of town. Its actual impact, however, is difficult to determine.

Central: Nava Elementary School  

Principal Marc DuCharme has the easy smile of a former elementary school teacher, and appears genuinely excited on the second day of classes for students. Next year will be a half-century since Nava opened its doors on Siringo Road. DuCharme, who formerly headed De Vargas Middle School, says the school plans to celebrate the occasion in a big way.

“The only difference between us and Acequia Madre and Wood Gormley [and] Atalaya is our location,” Ducharme says, noting virtually all students who attend Nava live within walking distance. But this, he says, should be seen as an asset. The school plans on making itself a place where parents want to send their kids, he says, by promoting activities such as a fitness club and a strings instruments program.

In the cafeteria, third-graders talk to each other over a lunch of corn dogs and beans. SFR tried to drop in on the class of one teacher, but she declined because she was trying to set the tone of her classroom during the first week of school.

Northeast: Acequia Madre Elementary School

Acequia Madre is over a decade older than Nava, but the district never contemplated shuttering its doors. Principal Kathy Cassus has an idea why.

“We have a lot of people who want to transfer into here because of the idea” of the school, Cassus tells SFR. “This is what an elementary school should feel like.” 

This year about half of the fewer than 200 students at the school will be transfers from other parts of the city.

Murals painted by generations of students adorn the walls, and outside, the parent-teacher association maintains a garden with fruit trees, flowers and a compost bin. In second grade teacher Kathryn Sechrest's class of 17 children, students learn to meditate on their feelings and express them in emotionally sophisticated ways.

South: Amy Biehl Community School

Last year, families mostly moving into the Oshara neighborhood boosted the Rancho Viejo school's enrollment to capacity, forcing the district to redirect any new students in the surrounding area to nearby Piñon for the following year. With a capacity for 470, Amy Biehl is huge, but not big enough to keep up with Southside growth, Principal Cheryl Romero says.

“I think it’s going to be something where we just work with the city and county as much as possible to try and see how the development is happening,” Romero says, “so we can try and prepare ourselves to serve our students.”

On the first Friday of the school year, students prepare to leave for an early release, after having assembled in the gym for a rally. Sixth and first graders pack into the cafeteria at the same time for lunch—the main course is cheesy bread. The school, whose interior is painted in earth tones, is less than 10 years old and feels more akin to a medium-sized middle school.

Romero claims the school enjoys a "really high morale" where people care for each other and are compassionate. Even as its population grows, Amy Biehl still serves its original function as a true community school.

“Families know each other here,” she says, “because of the stability we have.”