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On a Monday morning earlier this year, the nine students at Camino de Paz School & Farm gather in a small adobe schoolhouse to discuss And Now Miguel, a coming-of-age novel about the son of a sheep herding family in Northern New Mexico.
The class discusses how Miguel desperately wants to prove his worth by accompanying the older men of the family on a sheep drive to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The theme is apt. The attitude that personal growth and self-confidence are built through action and hands-on learning is at the core of Camino de Paz’s mission. The Montessori middle school is based on Maria Montessori’s Erdkinder (German for Earth Children) philosophy that adolescents thrive through land-based learning.
Located on a sprawling nine-acre lot in Santa Cruz, New Mexico, Camino de Paz is one of a kind. The solar-powered property boasts three greenhouses, an old barn, a commercial dairy, a fiber arts/marimba studio, and more.
Students spend the early mornings and late afternoons completing farm chores, rotating between the horticulture, dairy, animal, and indoor “crews” each semester. Time in between is spent in the mixed-grade classroom where lessons often relate to what’s going on at the farm.
“If there is one teacher at Camino de Paz,” says farm manager Greg Nussbaum, “it is the land.”
Because Camino de Paz is low on enrollment this year, seventh grader Sierra Brotton is the only member of the horticulture crew. “It’s tough, but I manage” Sierra explains as she pulls off row covers in one of the school’s greenhouses. As Sierra makes her rounds, she rattles off the different varieties of greens like they’re multiplication tables: “dino kale, red Russian kale, Swiss chard, buttercrunch lettuce, ruby red lettuce, arugula…”
Across the way, eighth grader Justin Sanchez explains the merits of feeding pregnant goats grain instead of hay. Justin boasts that he “can birth goats with my eyes closed” and humorously recalls getting goat placenta on his face during kidding season last year. Not a bad start for a 13-year-old who wants to become a veterinarian.
The school and the farm at Camino de Paz are completely intertwined. Students study microbiology by performing autopsies on animals and measuring pH levels in the compost piles; they sharpen math skills by keeping track of feed costs and profit margins. They read novels like And Now Miguel with strong adolescent narrators who chronicle the unique cultural heritage of New Mexico.
Students are not only enrolled in middle school at Camino de Paz — they are running a business. Students are responsible for sending inventory lists to partner stores, and they staff the booth each Saturday at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Each crew turns in a monthly business report and students are trained in Quickbooks accounting software.
“For the students this is a business,” Nussbaum says. “It’s all about efficiency.”
The farm sells 80 percent of its product wholesale at local grocery stores and co-ops and 20 percent retail at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, a half-hour south of Santa Cruz. Nussbaum estimates that the farm generates $150,000 in sales annually, or about $10,000 per student per year when the school is at its normal enrollment of 15.
The farm pays for itself through these sales, while the school runs off of tuition and donations. Though tuition is $8,000 annually, 90 percent of students are on financial aid made possible by a network of supportive donors.
Camino de Paz’s students are an interesting mix. Some live in Santa Fe, others on nearby reservations; some are shy, others are boisterous. Their life aspirations vary from playing college football to becoming a fashion designer, a vet, a farmer, and an engineer. Yet all students identified their love of hands-on learning as their reason for attending Camino de Paz.
“At Camino de Paz you learn by doing, something the traditional school system misses,” Director Patricia Pantano says. “You can’t build confidence solely through test marks.”