It may not be miraculous that Santa Fe Public Schools finally opened its brand new middle school, but Milagro Middle School drew plenty of accolades last week on the first day of the 2019-20 school year.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” principal Brenda Korting said while greeting visitors on Tuesday. “It’s an incredible, beautiful building.”
The $30 million state-of-the-art facility built on the site of the former De Vargas Middle School was years in the making, but worth the wait, Korting said.
“There are still some minor things that need to be done,” she said, “but I think it sends a clear message to our kids that people in Santa Fe care about education and spent all this money for them.”
Seventh-grader Chris Rivera was impressed, too.
“It looks nice … very, very nice,” he said.
Young Mr. Rivera later upgraded his assessment to “wonderful,” adding that he especially liked the cafeteria and the track encircling an athletic field.
Other students described the building as “big,” “modern looking” and “detailed.”
Seventh-grader Luis Serrano said he “liked” it. “But, for me, I’m kind of lost,” he added.
It will take a few days before students learn how to get around, principal Korting said. She spent time between classes directing students to their classrooms, the “cafetorium” and the library, which is upstairs and has an east-facing wall of window panes that provide an stunning view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“Oh, this is a beautiful space,” said Kari Heil, the library media teacher at the school. “Compared to other libraries, this is exceptional.”
Heil was still in the process of stocking bookshelves on the first day of school. She said the library will carry about 12,000 titles.
“There’s a lot of information in here for students to learn about the world,” she said.
Consolidating two schools
The new building is the end result of the consolidation of two middle schools, which caused considerable debate and consternation when it was first proposed under former Santa Fe Public Schools superintendent Joel Boyd.
In 2016, a Florida-based consulting firm made a number of recommendations to the school board, including combining De Vargas and Capshaw middle schools, two of the lowest performing schools in the district. The district-wide analysis was part of an initiative to provide equal education opportunities to students in poorer parts of town, and was based on student test scores, staff and student absences, and community surveys.
Another factor playing into the decision to combine the schools was declining enrollment at De Vargas, which was built in 1962 to accommodate 650 students, but at the time was serving fewer than 250 students. The newer, but nearly 40-year-old, Capshaw Middle School was housing more than 400 students.
Some staff members, faculty and parents of students at the schools resisted the proposal, not wanting to see their school shut down. Factions at both schools were at odds over such questions as where the new school would be located and who would serve as principal, leading to some contentious debate during school board meetings, including accusations of racism.
The district’s Citizens Review Committee first recommended that the combined school be located at a renovated De Vargas campus on Llano Street at a cost of about $18 million and open in time for the 2017-18 school year. But the school board ultimately decided to construct a whole new school at a cost of about $30 million at the De Vargas site, north of Santa Fe High School.
Rather than keep one name over another, the board decided to name the school Milagro Middle School. Their nickname is the Thunder.
While the new school was being built, the combined student bodies conducted classes at the Capshaw campus on Zia Road east of the Albertsons supermarket.
Grace Mayer, president of the National Education Association Santa Fe, the local teachers union, and an art teacher at Milagro, and De Vargas before that, said the two-year transition has been hard on everyone.
“The transition was difficult. We lost a lot of staff,” she said. “Finally, it feels like a new school now. Before, it felt like a school in name only.”
Mayer said any hard feelings that may have lingered from the past few years can be put behind them.
“We can move on now,” she said.
More modern facilities
The school is staffed by 54 teachers. About 20 of them are new and many of the rest taught previously at either De Vargas or Capshaw.
One of them is Steve Dixon, who teaches family and consumer science, which includes the culinary program. He says the workspace at Milagro is larger and more modern than the facilities at the old De Vargas school. The kitchen area will be able to accommodate more students at one time, he said, “and I think the layout will help them understand and embrace teamwork and communication.”
The two-story, 117,690-square-foot building includes 19 modernly equipped classrooms, plus additional class space for academic support and services. There are separate rooms for choir, orchestra and band. It also has autism and life skills rooms, and a maker space for collaborative projects, such as robotics and 3-D printing.
The building was constructed with the latest sustainability features, including smart meters to monitor water and electricity usage, LEED lighting with vacancy sensors, and a 40,000-gallon underground water cistern that collects rain water to be used for irrigation.
Outdoors in the parking lot next to a sparkling athletic field trimmed in the school colors of powder blue and gold are two solar panel structures that also serve to shade parking spaces.
Architecturally, the school has a contemporary look, with curved and wavy awnings that contrast with the sharp angles of its outline.
Principal Korting said one of her favorite parts of the building is the commons area, adjacent to a large courtyard.
“It will be a fabulous place for kids to hang out before school and it opens up to this great outdoor space,” she said turning to the courtyard, which like all of the grounds is landscaped with drought-tolerant trees and shrubs.
Another thing she loves about the design is that it lets in a lot of natural light. “It really does improve morale,” she said.
Twelve elementary schools feed into Milagro. Korting said that more than 620 seventh- and eight-graders showed up for the first day of school.
“Compared to what they’re used to, this building seems so grown up,” Korting said. “I think it shows that Santa Fe cares about education and cares about their kids.”