By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican
The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with his teachers.
The teachers are his mentors, Chavez said. After he graduates from Santa Fe’s Monte del Sol Charter School in May, he plans to pursue a degree in education and become a teacher himself — a plan he decided on after talking to his teachers about their paths through higher education.
“I can practically call my teachers my friends,” Chavez said. “I can have normal conversations with them, and they just make you feel safe.”
It’s a question lawmakers toyed with this legislative session as they considered new high school graduation requirements: In a state where nearly 40% of students frequently miss class, what will make high schoolers want to come to school?
In House Bill 171 — signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Friday afternoon — lawmakers handed out a list of to-dos that must be completed to graduate high school: four years each of math, English and social studies; three science classes; a physical education class; a semester of health; a smattering of electives for a total of 24 academic units.
But the new graduation requirements, which will go into effect for students starting ninth grade in the 2025-26 school year, also attempt to make high school experiences more meaningful through the integration of career-technical education in academic subjects and efforts to better prepare students for what comes next, an analysis by the Legislative Education Study Committee shows.
As lawmakers and school officials consider ways to improve student engagement, a group of high schoolers at Monte del Sol — which operates with just under 400 students in seventh through 12th grade — encouraged them not to shy away from the less-than-academic components of education.
What really makes them excited about school, the teenagers said, is the connections they’ve forged with teachers, teammates, coaches and mentors.
“Being just a number, especially in a larger school, doesn’t give you that much motivation,” said Emiliano Alarcón Macías, a senior at Monte del Sol.
Whether they attend large traditional schools or smaller charters, one thing is certain: today’s high schoolers have varied interests.
Monte del Sol junior Fernanda Gomez, a soccer and basketball player, said she hopes to go into forensics, a field she thinks will combine her interests in the legal and medical fields.
Her classmate, Stefnee Briceno-Roybal, said she plans to become an emergency room nurse or pediatric nurse practitioner now that she’s completed a mentorship program in life coaching and helped train an elementary school cheer team.
And Chavez said he sharpened his skills as an educator through Muay Thai training.
The challenge for lawmakers this session, then, was how to ensure every student’s unique interests could fit in and around the state’s new graduation requirements.
Throughout the session, HB 171’s sponsors, House Education Committee Chairman Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, and House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, have touted the bill as a means of offering students flexibility and ownership in picking their high school paths, something that will, in turn, get them excited about attending school.
“It’s really aimed at getting students to buy in so that … they take the classes that they want to take, the things that they’re interested in learning about,” Romero said during the bill’s signing ceremony Friday. “When you can engage students on that level, you’re going to get them wanting to come to school.”
In addition to setting forth standard expectations surrounding core subject areas, HB 171’s requirements allow career-technical education courses and work-based learning programs to count toward English, math and science credits. They also mandate two-unit elective pathways in the fine arts, a capstone project, a language other than English and several other options.
The bill encourages schools “to make available courses and programs of study that allow students to pursue a range of post-secondary opportunities and workforce opportunities” and requires students in eighth through 11th grade and their families to create “next-step plans” outlining expected courses for the next school year.
One other feature of the newly minted law: It leaves two required units up to local school boards. That means boards — or, in the case of public charter schools like Monte del Sol, governing councils — will be able to require all students to take two extra classes to graduate, based on their community’s needs and values.
For instance, those board-imposed requirements could include instruction in a language other than English or participation in agriculture programs or specialty courses based on a charter school’s unique mission.
Lujan Grisham offered her support to this version of the bill, despite vetoing a similar bill in 2023, noting in her veto message it weakened graduation standards by decreasing required units to 22 from 24. HB 171 maintains the same total number of class units — 24 — required for graduation.
“I’m very pleased to be signing this bill. … This bill, this time, I got a little education,” the governor said during a bill signing ceremony Friday.
For Devany Lockwood, a sophomore at Monte del Sol and a conscientious student, school is the thing to do every day.
“It’s like kind of on your to-do list so, that way, you’re able to move onto the next grade,” she said.
Monte del Sol operates with a regular attendance rate of 83% — more than 20% higher than the state average, according to state Public Education Department data.
But Lockwood said the reason she enjoys coming to school is socializing with her volleyball team. The same is true for Gomez, who has been working with her coach to prioritize “not only having fun, but being responsible” as a member of the soccer team.
Chavez said he feels the same way about many of his teachers. He comes to school to interact with them, and he thinks a lot of his peers do the same.
“If teachers are taught to be more engaged in not just educational stuff — like on a more personal level — I feel like a lot more kids would be willing to go to school that day just to talk to a teacher,” Chavez said.
And then there are the academic benefits to showing up each day, said Alarcón Macías: It lets students stash knowledge for use in the future. An aspiring mechanical engineer, he has no doubt the subject matter from his classes will reappear in college — and he’s grateful for it.
“At the end of the day, it’s all for my benefit,” Alarcón Macías said. “I’m going to go to college and use everything that I’m learning here.”
Monte del Sol Head Learner Zoë Nelsen hopes her students leave having experienced that personal touch — forming a connection with the school’s community.
A Monte del Sol graduate, Nelsen said, should be a critical thinker with an appetite for exploration and the skills to plug into higher education or the workforce.
But she hopes “they feel like they were valued as people, as humans,” too.