ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Libni Perez is already on her way to a career in nursing – more than a year before she will have finished high school.
The 11th-grader spends her mornings taking English, math and other standard coursework, and her afternoons learning how to disinfect surgical equipment in the sterile processing technician certificate program at Central New Mexico Community College.
It’s all part of College and Career High’s innovative approach, which administrators call “graduation squared.”
Students work toward a high school diploma and a CNM associate’s degree at the same time, allowing them to enter university as a junior or jump right into a career. Textbooks and classes are free – a $6,000 value if a student completes an AA.
The school is on CNM’s main campus at 525 Buena Vista Drive SE, providing easy access to the library and tutoring services.
“There are so many opportunities,” Perez said. “When you come here, you get to find out what you want to do in life.”
That goal-focused attitude is reflected in College and Career High’s consistently strong rankings.
It has received the top grade of A from the New Mexico Public Education Department every year since it opened in 2013.
In the latest round of grading, College and Career High was the only school in the state to earn top marks in all eight areas that make up the final grade. The individual categories include graduation rate, opportunities to learn, and improvements among the highest-performing and lowest-performing students.
“This place is a diamond in the city,” principal Todd Resch said. “I try to get to know every student on an individual basis.”
He particularly enjoys supporting kids and helping them “make their dreams a reality.”
More and more students are embracing those opportunities – enrollment has gone from around 70 to 145 over the past three years – but College and Career High is still a bit of a hidden gem, despite its strong academics.
There were a few open slots for more students at the beginning of the school year, and Resch hopes to raise the school’s profile.
“I really believe in the work we do here,” said Resch, a former Albuquerque Public Schools associate superintendent.
At the heart of that work is a strong belief in education tailored for each unique child.
Dean Karen Krall said she feels there is no one-size-fits-all solution for kids. “We design courses to support students specifically, to bolster their test scores, but really their skills.”
Students at College and Career High have access to about 100 CNM programs, including electrical trades, biology, welding and political science.
The demographics are diverse. Fifty-nine percent of the students are Hispanic, and 83 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
CNM president Katharine Winograd has heard that College and Career High is successful because it attracts high-income families, but she stressed that the student body reflects Albuquerque’s population.
“This works because the students have high expectations and everybody who works with them has high expectations for them,” Winograd said. “The college faculty don’t give the high school students a break. They have to do college-level work. … And they really rise to the occasion.”
Although College and Career High demands discipline, it also provides an unusual level of freedom. Kids don’t adhere to a bell schedule, and they can leave for lunch at restaurants on nearby Central Avenue. They also meet throughout the year with a CNM achievement coach, who helps keep them on track academically.
Perez said she feels like she is getting a taste of college life.
“I like being treated as an adult,” she said. “You have the responsibilities that you would have as an adult.”
In some of Perez’s CNM classes, the instructors are surprised to discover that the polite, well-spoken teen is only an 11th-grader.
Her classmates Maria Garcia-Quezada and Arsenio Martinez agreed that the atmosphere at College and Career High brings out maturity.
“At other schools, the kids are only thinking about that day,” Garcia-Quezada said. “They are just in the moment. We are thinking about our lives and where we want to go.”
Martinez, an aspiring mechanic, is enrolled in the automotive service fundamentals program and has already taken a few side jobs working on cars.
“What CCHS has done is they let you experience what it is going to be like (in a career),” he said. “Here, you get to explore a little bit. If you find something you like, like theater or mechanics or even nursing, it allows you to pursue it right away.”
The schedule can be demanding, but the three students said they feel supported by teachers and staff.
Garcia-Quezada has taken advantage of opportunities to job-shadow and discovered a passion for the movie industry. After she finishes high school in June, the 12th-grader plans to go on to the University of New Mexico and study film in the hope of becoming a director one day.
She is thrilled that College and Career High has given her a head start.
“When you graduate, I think it is the coolest thing ever that you have a diploma in one hand and a degree in the other,” Garcia-Quezada said.
CNM and Albuquerque Public Schools have gotten behind College and Career High and are working together to expand its facilities.
In 2015, the two entities agreed to share the cost of a new $31.4 million building on the CNM campus to accommodate the school, along with a charter, the Native American Community Academy. The 75,000-square-foot joint-use facility will also house CNM’s teacher education and early childhood health-cultural education programs.
An architect will be named in September and the new facility is scheduled to open in 2019, accommodating 300-400 College and Career High students. Administrators will also consider adding a ninth-grade class at College and Career High, which currently offers 10th through 12th grades.
Winograd credited CNM’s strong partnership with APS for driving the school’s success.
“We believe that the staff of that high school are members of our CNM community,” she said. “They come to our convocation; they are invited to all our events. They participate any time they can. We don’t draw a line emotionally or in our behavior. We do the same thing with the students.”
That coordination is helping create a pipeline for students to progress from high school to higher education, a big goal in a district that has struggled to get kids to graduation.
Across APS, only 61.7 percent of the class of 2015 received a diploma, down from 62.7 percent in 2014 and 68.7 percent in 2013. The graduation rate for College and Career High last year was above 90 percent.
And students who do go on to college often have to take remedial classes, particularly in math and English.
But College and Career High is bucking the trend and Winograd said the data shows their system works.
Eventually, she would like to replicate the model at CNM’s West side, Rio Rancho and Montoya campuses.
“I think the future is really bright in terms of where we can go,” she said.