When Principal Tori Stephens-Shauger describes her students at ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, N.M., she avoids the labels that have dogged most of these kids for years. “We don’t call them dropouts, troubled kids or ditchers,” says the school’s co-founder. Having grown up in a ranching family and teaching everything from science to special education, Stephens-Shauger understands that there’s a difference between “raising cattle and raising people.” Branding a child doesn’t do any good.

Students who have struggled to make it in other schools find out fast that this principal wants to know them as individuals, not labels. Her blue eyes widen with genuine curiosity when she says, “What I want to know is, what’s their story? And how can we build off what’s amazing about them?”

The reference to building is no coincidence. ACE Leadership, a public charter school, opened in 2010 in partnership with the Associated General Contractors of New Mexico, a commercial construction industry group. ACE’s bold aim is to recruit young people who have either quit high school or are heading in that direction and guide them into promising careers in the fields of architecture, construction and engineering (hence, ACE). The school is more than a job-training program — many such programs exist in other cities, helping to shepherd students from technical schools into the construction-industry workforce.  ACE reimagines the traditional educational model, teaching students core subject matter like math, science and communication by having them work on real-world-inspired projects, rather than in workbooks in a classroom. Students demonstrate what they’ve learned not by taking exams, but by presenting their projects publicly and getting critiques from industry professionals. Teachers learn to be skillful project managers who find the learning opportunities in real-life situations. Upon graduating from ACE, some students begin apprenticeships; others go on to college.

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Most students at ACE are male, Latino and growing up in poverty. Many are bilingual. Nearly all were unsuccessful in traditional school. Tony Monfiletto, the school’s 49-year-old co-founder, doesn’t soft-pedal the challenge of reinventing public education to work better, especially for poor kids. He’s been at it since 1991 as a teacher, principal, parent and education policy analyst, struggling to find innovation in “a system that alienates 40 percent of our kids” (i.e., the dropouts). “What are we doing for the 40 percent who don’t adapt to this [traditional school] model?” he asks.

Five years ago, looking for answers to that question, Monfiletto sat down with the Associated General Contractors of New Mexico, leaders from the construction industry. They told him that they no longer had room on their payroll for young people with only “strong backs and low ambition.” Commercial construction had become increasingly technical work, and yesterday’s trade schools hadn’t kept pace. Contractors, engineering firms and architects now require employees who can solve sophisticated problems, often on multimillion-dollar projects. Monfiletto realized that instead of dropouts who can swing a hammer, “they need[ed] adaptive, dynamic problem-solvers — people who can think.”

So, he set about designing his new school “backward,” by asking first what local industries and disenfranchised kids need from it and then creating a model that served the mutual interests of both. The year ACE Leadership opened, New Mexico had the worst dropout rate in the country, with barely 60 percent of students earning high school diplomas. Leaving school is a costly decision, foreshadowing a lifetime of low wages and missed opportunities. High school dropouts not only earn less, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, but they are also at higher risk to become teen parents, more likely to commit crimes, are less engaged in civic life and die sooner than those with diplomas. Disproportionately, it’s poor kids of color who fail to finish high school.  To build “ladders of opportunity” for boys and young men of color, President Obama launched an initiative in February called My Brother’s Keeper that involves business partnerships and mentoring for youth.

ACE pulls kids on the margins back into school by offering them hands-on, active learning that has a clear connection to their future. Students don’t sit in classes organized by subject area. Instead, they learn academics and everything else — including a professional work ethic — by designing and building real things. On a typical day at ACE, student teams might be designing an interpretive center for a wildlife sanctuary, developing a marketing pitch for a commercial builder, or advising the city on how to celebrate the legacy of Route 66.

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That’s a departure from most vocational schools, where kids take the usual subjects plus hands-on electives. “Here, it’s not math, science, English and then carpentry. It’s a morning project and an afternoon project,” Monfiletto says, “and all the core academics are embedded into the projects.” Kids get individualized help if they struggle with basics like reading or math, but they don’t spend time on remedial worksheets. For instance, in a project last year called Our Albuquerque, students analyzed a novel that dealt with cultural identity, created topographic maps to reflect the city’s geology and geography, studied poetry and produced spoken word videos that were projected onto their maps as a visual art installation. They presented their work to the mayor’s office to contribute to the city’s redesign efforts.

Industry experts partner with teachers to plan realistic projects and give students constructive feedback. They also act as role models, showing by example how to give a firm handshake or ask for a visitor’s business card. One industry old-timer fills a unique role as “construction coach,” ushering students toward success the way he used to break in newcomers on the job site. “Build your reputation,” a motto displayed on posters (in English and Spanish) and repeated at morning meetings, is a value that kids take seriously. They wrote it.

Tim Kubik, an educational consultant who has helped the ACE team develop its project-based curriculum, says the instructional design is a good fit for students “who need a different kind of education than what most public schools offer. Some kids need to be active. What if you didn’t design a school that assumes kids will be sitting? What if you assume they will be moving?”

Stephens-Shauger, ACE’s principal, brings that start-from-scratch thinking into every aspect of her work, from how she handles discipline to how she hires teachers. Her bottom-line question: “What does this young person need from adults?” That translates to a philosophy of positive youth development, building on kids’ strengths rather than trying to fix what’s broken. It also means that the school provides a 360-degree support system to prevent crises that can interrupt learning. Those challenges — from mental-health issues to family troubles — don’t stop at the school doors. That’s why ACE employs a team of social workers, has lawyers at the ready to navigate immigration issues, makes home visits and runs an on-site health clinic in partnership with the University of New Mexico.

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Finding teachers to work in this environment, Stephens-Shauger says, “is not about years of experience or what’s on their resume. We need to know, are they comfortable here? Are they confident, flexible thinkers?” She observes candidates closely when they come for an initial visit. How do they react when they see power tools in the hands of teenagers? What if students want to bring in their skateboards to test the design of a half-pipe they just built? How do visitors react to the boisterous learning that happens in public? “We find out fast,” she says, “whether people can hang.”

Not content with one innovative school, Monfiletto also directs a professional development organization, the New Mexico Center for School Leadership, which aims to take good ideas to scale. Last fall, he helped to launch ACE’s first sister school: Health Leadership High School leverages similar learning strategies and industry partnerships to prepare students for careers in medicine, nursing, pharmacy and public health. So far, girls outnumber boys in this setting. Plans are in the works to partner with New Mexico’s technology sector for the next school, expected to open in 2015.

ACE, now in its fifth year, enrolls 320 young people, ages 14-24, in programs that run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Students enroll by choice. Day students typically start as ninth-graders and stay for four years. The evening program is more accelerated, geared for young adults who have some high school credits already. This spring, more than 60 students are expected to graduate, which should contribute to New Mexico’s improving graduation rates. Last year, 70 percent of New Mexico students completed high school within four years. Nationally, the high-school graduation rate is holding steady at about 78 percent, a 6.5 percent improvement since 2001, which may put the country on track to meet the 90-percent goal that the White House has set for 2020.

Meanwhile, Monfiletto and the team are working with the state to develop alternative ways of measuring school performance. Standardized tests don’t assess whether students can work on a team, solve complex problems, or apply the trouble-shooting strategies they learn at ACE. “I’ve never heard an employer say, ‘we need to see a kid’s reading score,’ ” Monfiletto says. “They want to know, what kind of kid is this? What can they do?”

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