For Jewel Montana, a hard-of-hearing 14-year-old, the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy is much more than just a school.
For her, it’s like a home, and her teachers and friends are like her family. So when asked about the new campus the school’s slated to receive next fall, she said the grounds symbolize far more than just more space.
“It’s more than just a building,” the seventh grader said, signing along as she spoke. “It’s about … hope.”
The charter school geared toward serving deaf and hard of hearing students revealed the design of its new home at a Friday ceremony attended by over 100 students, school staff and elected officials who helped get the school the campus it desperately needed.
“We just have been fighting tooth and nail to try to figure out how to fund a school that really did serve the community,” Executive Director Raphael “Rafe” Martinez said.
Much of the crowd followed along the ceremony in American Sign Language, and applauded silently instead of clapping their hands together. When it came time for the post-ceremony performance, students danced — and signed — along to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
For many school staff members and students, space is a top concern at the Downtown properties they’re currently in.
Right now, the school’s 125 students — most of whom receive special education — are crammed into 11 classrooms across three campuses. The new campus will provide over 20.
For Sara Garcia Ayres, who teaches a class designed for students with “multiple disabilities,” the new campus will mean being able to rejoin the rest of the school. Currently, because of space issues, she teaches out of a portable located on ACE Leadership High School’s campus.
“Having us be back together as one community would be amazing,” she said. “I feel a little isolated out there, sometimes, so being back with my community would be wonderful.”
There’s not a set start date for the roughly $31 million project yet, Martinez said, but he hopes to begin construction sometime this spring. The project’s slated to be completed in fall of 2024.
Much of the roughly 5-acre campus will be devoted to outdoor learning space, including a garden, an outdoor classroom and several fields for crops. Part of the mission, Martinez said, is to provide space for members of the community to come take classes.
“It really does embrace the relationship between our kids and everything around us,” he said.
The road to the new campus wasn’t without its ups and downs.
Friday’s unveiling came after the Bernalillo County Commission last year rejected a pair of appeals filed by neighbors opposing the zoning approval that allowed putting the school on part of the county-owned “Sandia Ranch” along Edith, north of Osuna, in the North Valley.
Martinez said the school also had to climb almost all the way to the top of the state Public School Facilities Authority’s list of schools with the biggest facility needs.
But for the school, its teachers and its students, it was well worth the wait.
“We’ve been waiting for this for our students for a very, very long time,” teacher Therese Garcia said.