School of Dreams Academy steams ahead

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The School of Dreams Academy in Los Lunas starts the new school year energized by getting an “A” grade from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Submitted photo: School of Dreams Academy senior Danielle Garcia works on the school’s supercomputer. The Los Lunas charter school is one of the only high schools in the country to receive such a computer.

School officials are launching a number of new projects this year, including advanced placement classes and a brand new school building slated to be built by next fall.

The school also is introducing a program for seventh-graders to get them acquainted with all the school offers.

“We’re creating an introductory wheel for our seventh graders,” said SODA Principal Mike Ogas. “They’ll come in and take nine weeks of robotics, nine weeks of art, nine weeks of music and nine weeks of dance, so that they can get a feel for the whole school.”

It’s called, STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — and it will be the focus of the charter, which is up for re-authorization.

School officials will be handing in all the documentation for re-authorization this October, and will establish the charter contract that covers the next five years.

“The law changed a little bit,” Ogas said. “Instead of just rewriting a charter, there is actually a format to have a contract with the public ed commission. We’ve been in that training for a little bit over a year now.”

The contract is specifically defined for consistency across charter schools and will have sections on academic achievement, governance, and specifics of each unique school.

The New Mexico Public Education Department will visit the school as part of the process, and then the school will undergo a hearing.

“I’m excited about it,” Ogas said. “I think we’ve been able to accomplish a lot of really cool things over the last five years, and our scores are on the rise, our grade is on the rise. There’s a lot of things that we’ve been putting in place. There’s a lot of positive things going on.”

The school has also been looking to add advanced placement classes in biology, history and math this school year. School staff has been gearing up to teach the classes.

“For two years now, we’ve been sending staff for advanced placement training to be able to offer the courses here,” said Ogas. “We’ve already got a very strong dual-enrollment program, but we may be offering a computer science program out at UNM main campus that goes along with our supercomputing program — work our staff and our kids have been doing in supercomputiong for the last few years.”

The Supercomputing Challenge is a nationally recognized program that promotes computational thinking in science and engineering so that the next generation of high school graduates are better prepared to compete in an information-based economy.

“Some of our kids are actually working on their associates in pre-engineering at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus,” said Eric Brown, dean of students. “Now, some will have the opportunity to work on an associate degrees in computer science through the main campus.”

The Supercomputing Challenge program teaches teams of middle and high schools students how to use powerful computers to analyze, model and solve real world problems.

The school received a supercomputer when senior Danielle Garcia and teacher Creightion Edington applied to qualify for the Little Fe (elemental symbol for iron) competition.

“They got accepted to be one of the only high schools in the country to have a supercomputer,” Brown said. “We are the only high school in New Mexico with a supercomputer.

New Mexico Tech is the only other entity in New Mexico that received a supercomputer out of this program.

The supercomputer can “crunch data,” meaning compute geologic and biologic information, various statistics and historic patterns to develop real world models, such as projecting rainfall amounts over a given period of time, or mapping hectares of farmland in a graph, comparing it with population growth.

Students will be working in parallel processing and other cutting-edge computer science technologies on their projects.

The Supercomputer Challenge was started by Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico Tech.

“That’s one of the things that our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program is doing now, along with all the robotics stuff that they’re always doing,” Brown said. “They’re really trying to take us to the next level of doing the science fair-type projects that we want to see our kids do.”

The goal is to work their way from regional science fairs to state and national, and ultimately the international science fair competitions.

The school also was accepted to be one of the 30 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, a new initiative to foster inventiveness in high school students by the prestigious technology school.

The SODA team came up with an invention, kept secret until they submit a prototype of it in the fall, and then in the spring, Lemelson will pick 15 of the 30 teams to attend a week-long conference up at MIT.

Sophomore Chloe Grubb and Edington, the robotics teacher, and Brown have been working to get into the competition for a few years now.

“The Lemelson InvenTeam already gave them $250 or $300 to prototype their invention,” Brown said. “So, they’ve got that and are already working on it.”

They will present it at an annual convention of inventors and entrepreneurs who come from all over the world, Ogas said.

“The kids have an opportunity to meet with them and listen to seminars and actually work with them and talk to them. It’s a great opportunity.”

Thousands of schools apply, but it’s narrowed down to only 30 teams.

As part of the school’s community service program, students in robotics will be mentoring local students from several different elementary schools to put together a First Lego League.

“If they want to do it,” Brown said, “we’ll help them write the grant to get it, and actually mentor them, teach them how to program the robots.”

The SODA dance team will offer after-school dance workshops for elementary students, and they’ve been invited to Isleta Elementary to enhance its after-school dance program.

Brown has been working with staff to enhance the individual learning plan and upgrade how the school’s advisory classes are used.

The ILP has been made more grade specific and user friendly, and it is being digitized for online parent access.

The school’s new $4.5 million facility will be built on 17 acres of land in the Huning Ranch subdivision across the street from Sundance Elementary.

The land and construction costs will be paid by the School of Dreams Education Foundation. When the annual lease-purchase agreement is fulfilled in about 20 years, the school would then assume ownership. It is slated to open in the fall of the 2014-15 school year.

There are three phases for building the entire campus, starting with an arts and science complex, two separate structures of classrooms, an administration building and a cafeteria. A rudimentary 110- x 60-yard utility track also will be laid out.

Phase one of the campus would house everything the school has right now, and as many as 425 students.

The second phase will include a performing arts amphitheater/conference hall.

“We do have a goal of an 800-seat auditorium that we have been discussing,” Ogas said. “That will probably take a number of funding sources that we’re exploring right now.”

School administrators would like to turn it into a campus facility that can accommodate not only multiple uses for the school, but also multiple uses for the community.

“Possibly a convention center site, or a place where we could have performing arts,” he said. “Speakers — keeping in line with our community service. There isn’t anything like that in this valley that is totally open to this community.”

Another goal of the school is to provide more mentorships, internships and apprenticeships programs for students.

There are studies that project a skills gap in America, where there aren’t enough people in the labor pool to fill jobs requiring specific abilities, Ogas said.

“They’re projecting they’re not going to have any skilled workers over the next decade,” he said. “So, there’s a huge gap in training programs that help people do the work that needs to be done across the country.”

The school had five young men go to Central New Mexico Community College for a carpentry apprenticeship, and they ended up being the top five of the class.

“There’s a lot to be said for hands-on learning and on-the-job training,” Ogas said.

Classes at School of Dreams Academy begin on Wednesday, Aug. 14.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.