“I’m actually an alum of this school—which is how they found me.” That’s the short version of how Kate Chavez came to be the new executive director of Escuela del Sol, the first fully accredited Montessori school in New Mexico. The school is located on the grounds of the old Harwood Girls School (1925-1976) on Seventh and Mountain and now shares the space with the popular Harwood Art Center. Back in 1984 Escuela del Sol’s parent organization began renting a portion of the long-dormant campus to elementary students. “When I was a kid, it was, like, two rooms,” recalls Chavez. “I was the first kid to go into the elementary program. I was here when they started the Harwood. So I actually witnessed a lot of the transformation of this building. It was totally abandoned and falling apart. There was a little street or alleyway running right through the middle of the campus. It’s kind of amazing to come back and see food gardens and art.”

In addition to being a graduate of Escuela del Sol, Chavez was the first alumna to give a commencement address. In between, she worked and studied all over the world and has had a variety of experiences in the theater, film, education, nonprofit management and government. In Madrid, Chavez’ experience included working with the executive director of the Spanish Olympic bid. Upon returning to New Mexico, Chavez joined the Legislative Finance Committee as a fiscal analyst in education where she assisted on the state’s education budget and analyzed the fiscal impact of proposed legislation. So it was no great surprise when Escuela del Sol came calling—to anyone but Chavez.

Chavez actually knew Escuela’s last director from when she was a student. Friedje vanGils served as executive director for 41 years before retiring last year. “Even when they approached me, I thought, Why would you come to me as the next person for this organization? Then I was, like, Oh, yeah. I was a fiscal analyst for the legislature running budgets, and I’ve run departments, and I’ve worked with the government,” recalls Chavez. “I am the product of an Escuela education. It gives you this curiosity and then the courage or the wherewithal to follow it.” Just prior to taking over as executive director of Escuela del Sol in August of 2021, Chavez spent five and a half years teaching and doing administrative work at the New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe. “I lived in London. I lived in Spain. And then I ended up in some big cities here in the states. And I’ve always found myself in education one way or another.”

But the birth of her daughter and some soul searching during the COVID pandemic led Chavez on a path back to Albuquerque. “Even though I was very happy doing the work I was doing—I had my theater work, I had my teaching work, I had film work, I had a very full life—I also had a daughter. She was about to start school, and it just so happened that [Escuela del Sol] called me as I was starting to look around. I was like, Oh, I wanna send my kid to the school that does this! It was only through looking for schools for my daughter that I started to really, from the perspective of a parent, understand what a unique organization this is. It isn’t just a Montessori school. It isn’t just an art center.”

The Montessori method of education, developed in the early 20th century, gives children tremendous “autonomy” to follow their own educational interests. Teachers are often referred to as “guides,” and the schools place an emphasis not on grades and test scores, but on hands-on learning and developing real-world skills.

Escuela del Sol accepts students from preschool to junior high. The toddlers take turns serving each other during lunch and learn to wash their own dishes in pint-sized sinks. At the other end of campus, the teens run their own business, turning items grown in the school garden into beauty and bath products that they sell to fund school trips.

Chavez thinks that “We, as a nation, are starting to wake up to [the idea that] when we talk about educational outcomes, it isn’t actually about testing or results-based whatever, it’s actually about how do you get people to think? How do you get people to collaborate and think creatively and problem solve and engage?”

Escuela currently serves 160 students, many of whom returned to in-school learning quite early in the pandemic thanks to a smaller “pod-based” model. Some classroom spaces are still opening post-pandemic, and the school hopes to be “closer to full enrollment” of around 190 students by next year.

As for the future of Escuela del Sol, Chavez wants to see the school build a greater connection with the surrounding neighborhood, expanding both the campus and the programs it offers. Building facilities for post-natal infant care is on the wish list, but Chavez cautions that, “Being a small, nonprofit organization without an endowment, trying to figure out ways to meet that need is tricky. So we’re in the process of looking for community partners.” The campus is also hoping to expand its footprint. In Chavez’ office sits a dusty architectural model, plotting out rooftop gardens, a lush urban campus and new outdoor community spaces. Chavez points out an amphitheater that was slated to be completed in March of 2020. COVID and the rising cost of building materials has put it years behind schedule. Chavez sees the amphitheater as a gathering space for Harwood, “but also a gathering space for the entire community.” She also hopes to add a training center to the campus. “We have a sort of insane amount of intellectual or experiential capital at the organization. Our teachers are trained, experienced. Our average time here is 15 or 20 years. … So part of this idea behind the training center is to create a resource for the community.”

It’s a two-way street, though. As always, the school relies on the greater community of Albuquerque for support. Right now, Escuela is in the middle of its Annual Funds campaign. This year it focuses on three specific areas: tuition assistance, the gardening program and what the executive director calls the “area of greatest need.” The historic Harwood Center itself requires quite a bit of maintenance. New windows have been installed, plans are in place to bring universal access to the building’s second floor, and creating community gardens out front is next. “So we need a greenhouse. If somebody wants to help us with a greenhouse, so we can do seedlings,” Chavez says she can check one more thing off the list. Knowing her organization’s history, though, the executive director isn’t worried. “The way the Harwood Art Center started was artists coming in and scrubbing walls and cleaning up and patching drywall. The reason the organization has been able to thrive with so little, quite frankly, is because of the organization’s intrepidness. We will take a dollar and turn it into 50. We will take fencing and turn it into a chicken coop.”