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Published in Print: February 1, 1999, as Home Work

Home Work

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The students, mainly freshmen and sophomores enrolled in a special vocational program at Santa Fe High School, are building houses that the district then rents to teachers at a cut rate.

Though students in many voc-ed programs across the country build houses to sell, Santa Fe High's building-trades program benefits educators exclusively. Administrators for the 13,900-student system say they don't know of any other program like it. The district initiated the scheme last year as a way to keep teachers in Santa Fe, an increasingly pricey high-desert community. "The cost of living has been one of our challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers," says district superintendent Edward Lee Vargas.

So far, Santa Fe students have built two three-bedroom homes, and there are plans for 11 more. The cost of building the first house ran about $100,000, excluding the land, which was donated to the district more than 20 years ago. Using a lottery system, the district is choosing teachers for the homes from a pool of applicants. The first teacher moved in December 30.

Applications will be weighted based on such criteria as family income, marital status, and number of dependents. Although the houses are available to all school employees, teachers have first choice. Those selected will pay rent that is equal to 25 percent of their annual incomes, and the money from the rent will go into a fund for future teacher housing.

State of New Mexico Students enrolled in the elective building-trades classes are involved in every step of the construction process--from design to construction to landscaping. Although they are not paid for their efforts, the youngsters earn credit and leave the program with marketable skills. "We have contractors all over town who got their start from our building-trades program," says Fabian Chavez, a member of a local advisory board group that helps secure loans for the program's construction materials.

Sixteen-year-old building-trades student Bobby Gallegos wants to follow in their footsteps. "I've learned how to bid on homes, find prices for customers, and also how to cope with others," the 10th grader says. After graduation, Bobby plans to go to college and hopes one day to get a master's degree in business to supplement the skills he has learned. "It's not all construction," he says. "You need business skills, too."

Santa Fe school officials have known for some time that a growing number of district teachers can't afford to live anywhere near their schools. Property values and rents have become so high in Santa Fe in recent years that a number of teachers make the 60-mile trek from Albuquerque. The average cost of a house in Santa Fe is about $190,000; in Albuquerque, a comparable home costs about $120,000, according to superintendent Vargas.

For a teacher with a starting salary of $23,000, and even those veterans whose salaries average $30,000, houses in Santa Fe are not affordable, Vargas says. "This puts us at a disadvantage because as soon as an opening happens closer to a teacher's home, they leave us."

"It seems like an innovative recruiting strategy," says Deborah McLean, a spokeswoman for Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the nation's teaching corps. "Unfortunately, they probably can't build as many houses as the district needs."

But Vargas says he has been working on other plans, too. He has been talking with private organizations as well as city, county, and state officials about creating what he calls "a teacherage." Designed and built by independent architects and contractors, the 50-unit community would include both apartments and townhouses. Like the student-built houses, the units would rent for 25 percent of a teacher's salary. The superintendent plans to ask state lawmakers for $300,000 to help build the teacherage.

--Karen L. Abercrombie

Vol. 10, Issue 5, Pages 14-15

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