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Sawmill’s ACE Leadership High School focuses on in-demand trades

Student Brian Becerra operates a backhoe as part of ACE Leadership High School’s Heavy Equipment Rodeo, an event where industry partners introduce the kids to the large equipment used on job sites.

October 19, 2021

Tucked away at the eastern edge of the Sawmill neighborhood is a high school that’s doing things a little differently. In addition to more common subjects, they offer hands-on learning in the fields of architecture, construction, and engineering – something they shorten to ACE.

ACE Leadership High School was launched in 2011 amid a broader trend of high schools drifting away from vocational classes in favor of preparing students for traditional four-year colleges. The founding principle of the school is that plenty of students would rather skip office-based careers and follow a different path into the trades.

“Students often get pushed into more traditional settings,” said Matthew Salas, the school’s community engagement director. “ACE Leadership was started because the ACE industries were struggling to find employees, and the school helps fill that void.”

Careers in the trades often offer great pay and advancement opportunities, but Salas said they are frequently overlooked or avoided by students because many people have an unfounded negative view of these jobs.

“That stigma is there, and people really push for the traditional settings: Go to college, get a four-year degree, and go to work,” he said. “But that’s not always what people want. Some like to work with their hands, build things, and design things. Much of society kind of looks down on that for really no good reason.”

ACE Leadership offers the chance to learn those overlooked skills while still providing the foundation of a traditional high school education – something they accomplished by working typical lesson plans into hands-on projects.

For instance, a group of students is currently learning about the Sawmill district, Martineztown, and Barelas by studying the history of the areas and meeting with people in the communities. As a final project, they will design their own model city based on what they’ve learned.

Another group of students is learning the science behind electricity while building a mobile solar panel. ACE Leadership students have also built a pop-up playground at the school in conjunction with the New Mexico American Society of Landscape Architects.

Through these hands-on learning projects, some students even earn industry certifications by the time they graduate, allowing them to get jobs right after graduation. Students also have access to both paid and unpaid internships and apprenticeships.

“It’s a guided experience so that they don’t get lost, as a lot of graduates do with other schools,” Salas said.

With about 200 students currently enrolled, Salas says there are at least two teachers per class, with a teacher-student ratio of 20:1.

ACE Leadership also offers evening classes for students ages 18 to 22 who have been out of school for a while, or those who are behind on credits. Salas says it’s a good option for people with full-time jobs or family commitments during the day.

“It’s definitely a change for students that need it – that struggle in larger schools, or struggle in the traditional classroom setting,” he said. “It’s a good change.”

—By Ryan Lowery

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