Each year New Mexico fails to thrive in education and economic stability. The two go hand-in-hand. Many experts believe that traditional models of rote learning are relics of the industrial period and are potentially less effective at producing future leaders and successful adults.
Nestled in the heart of downtown Albuquerque, Siembra Leadership High School is a unique APS charter school that is improving outcomes for many students, including better graduation rates. Unlike traditional schools, their vehicle of teaching is Project-Based Learning (PBL) and the curriculum is focused on business entrepreneurship, economic development and social justice. The program also fosters community engagement by helping to create partnerships between students,local businesses and government entities.
With PBL, students are not learning theory or concepts from books, and they are not evaluated on subject testing. Instead, they acquire knowledge and skills by designing and completing significant semester-long projects where they gain authentic, applicable life experience. Also unique, students are groomed and supported to start and run their own business during their senior year. Siembra is producing graduates who are ready to actively participate and contribute to the community.
Natalie Tavitas is Siembra’s Community Engagement Director, and like many of the teachers and staff, she is also a licensed social worker. Tavitas feels that having a highly educated staff complements the school’s approach and provides students with “social-emotional support all around.” Helping students develop better social-emotional skills is an important element in Siembra’s model. After an unprecedented year from many students, this may be the exact type of support students and parents are craving.
The school starts its curriculum from scratch every semester without textbooks or worksheets. “We bring in community partners that pitch ideas and we elaborate on it further and it develops into a full-blown project for the semester,” says Tavitas. Last year around 8 community partners pitched ideas for students to work on real-life solutions for real challenges. The school projects come “from the pitches that are given. We have an event twice a year (Ed Café) and we invite the community to pitch project ideas, “says Tavitas.
The school expects to have another eight community partner requests for this school year. “We find a way to incorporate each idea into a project… we want to involve the community,” says Tavitas. Rather than taking a test the product or project counts as the student's final exam. Last semester students worked on downtown revitalization ideas and ways to promote downtown Albuquerque.
The school’s main focus for high school students is entrepreneurship. Recently Siembra’s seniors focused on starting their own business through “the Circle of Support,” an initiative made possible by community partners and the McCune Foundation. This initiative provides donations and mentorship, enabling students to promote their business and even compete for cash prizes to fund continued growth.
“We still incorporate all the traditional high school credits, but it is more real world based,” says Tavitas. Siembra's high schoolers also learned to “swim with the sharks”- a financial literacy project they took on last semester. Students learned about credit, getting a mortgage, interest rates and getting a loan. Before leaving high school students, receive a solid snapshot of the real world. “They are not just thrown into a job, they learn real-life job skills,” says Tavitas.
Tavitas says “Siembra” means “to cultivate and grow.” An appropriate name for a charter school with a unique approach. “We are essentially growing young people in our community and in our support. With our kids, everything is from the bottom up, essentially a startup. We are always growing and learning…even the adults grow with the kids,” says Tavitas.
Tavitas also believes cultivating our community and improving students’ lives goes hand-in-hand at Siembra. She says, “I think it’s a reciprocal relationship. Our students are getting out in our community, learning how to make a difference and strengthen our community.” Siembra’s graduation rate in 2020 was one of the highest in the state at 98 percent. “Our families speak for themselves and that we have made an impact in their lives,” says Tavitas.
Students and parents can tour the school by contacting Tavitas. Students can apply for the school’s lottery student selection process on the website https://siembraabq.org or visit the school on Facebook and Instagram.
To become a community partner, businesses can get involved by contacting Natalie Tavitas at 505-633-9367 or email firstname.lastname@example.org