Health Leadership High School:
A Case Study in Innovation

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As she passes through the bright turquoise halls of Health Leadership High School (Health), Leticia Archuleta, the school's Executive Director and Principal, calls out to a student: “Oye, mija. ¿Que tal?”

While they are chatting, a nearby staff member pokes her head out of her office to join in. The school has around 150 students and the staff and students are all well acquainted.

“We’re family here,” says Archuleta. “And most of our students are bilingual or trilingual. The staff, too.”

Since its doors first opened in 2014, Health’s mission has been to give students the project-based and hands-on learning they were not getting in traditional schools – while also equipping them with the skills they need to become leaders in healthcare. Every class incorporates project-based learning and students are required to get out into their communities to do capstone projects and internships.

Culturally and Linguistically
Responsive Education

Health’s student body is made up of about 40 percent English Language Learners (ELL), making their focus on language and bilingualism especially relevant. Archuleta and a few of her colleagues are fluent not just in English and Spanish, but also in American Sign Language (ASL), which she uses a couple minutes later, with a group of students at the front desk.

Partly due to the specific cultures, communities, and languages represented at Health Leadership High School, the school offers the State Seal of Biliteracy/Bilingualism in Spanish, ASL, and various Native American languages (in consultation with each specific Tribe or Pueblo). These language skills are especially encouraged in the context of the healthcare profession since medical interpreters and healthcare workers who speak multiple languages are in high demand.

The focus on language seals also fits with Health’s “Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Framework,” which is a way for them to promote equity and improve student outcomes by providing students with social emotional learning, language support, and integration of cultural identity into their schooling. Health is a Title I school, meaning that a majority of their students are economically disadvantaged, and 40 percent of the student body have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), meaning they receive special education services. The student body is 87 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Native American, and 2 percent Black. These various backgrounds and identities mean that promoting equity and providing that extra support at school is especially important - whether that be paid internships or bilingual education.

One way the school has worked to incorporate various identities into their curriculum is by teaching students about healing traditions from many different cultures rather than only teaching them western medicine. Science instructor Lisa Ortiz’s classroom contains not only the standard microscopes and dissection equipment, but also a chart that explains chakras, a full set of essential oils, and various plants and herbs the students use to make herbal remedies.

In a presentation at the annual New Mexico education conference, EdUprising, Veronica Vigil, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, talked about various remedios that she’d known about as a kid.

“How many of you grew up with grandmas or aunties putting Vick’s Vaporub on the bottoms of your feet?” she asked the room.

Several hands shot up. Vigil explained that this was a cultural practice rather than merely an old wives’ tale. Instead of dismissing such practices, the instructors at Health have chosen to integrate them into the classroom - especially in the case of herbal remedies that have been in use by various Indigenous peoples for hundreds of years.

When students learn about home remedies that they’ve grown up hearing from their grandparents in the same classroom where they also learn biology or have first aid training, they feel like who they are and where they come from can be part of the classroom – and hopefully by extension, the medical profession. New Mexico needs more health care professionals, but more specifically, we need health care professionals who come from and understand the communities they serve. This is what makes Health Leadership High School’s mission not just innovative, but necessary.


Giving [students] paid practicums and internships in those spaces gives them the opportunity to be able to see themselves.

Leticia Archuleta,
Executive Director of Health Leadership High School

Innovation Zones:
Responding to Community Needs

While Health Leadership was already implementing these non-traditional approaches to education, funding from the Innovation Zone Initiative (IZ) has given them the capital and support to provide their students with education that is tailored to their individual identities, experiences, and needs.

The Innovation Zone brings together initiatives and funding that are often disconnected. It supports the integration of graduate profiles, capstones, high-quality Career and Technical Education (CTE), work-based learning, and personalized supports for social-emotional learning. Districts and charter schools apply to be a part of the Innovation Zone Initiative through the New Mexico Public Education Department. Once approved, they are provided with funding and support to implement innovative practices in their schools.

It gives us the opportunity to provide students with experiences they may not get somewhere else. Every student here as the opportunity to show us what they can do.

—Veronica Vigil,
Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Health Leadership High School

Health Leadership High School was an Innovation Zone school beginning in 2023. The biggest improvement they’ve made with the funding they received is to make sure every student has the opportunity to be paid for their capstone project and/or their internship.

The school has always offered these work-based learning experiences, but during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and administrators at the school noticed that students were needing to choose between their internships and working jobs to help support themselves or their families.

“Innovation means making sure we are responding to the needs of our community,” says Archuleta.

The biggest need in the community was financial, which is why a majority of the IZ funding is going toward paid internships and capstone projects. Plus, the staff at Health understand that their students deserve to be paid for the work they do, regardless of their personal financial situation. Now, every single student can get paid while learning on-the-job skills and helping their community.

Paying these students is crucial because historically, internship programs have only been attainable for those privileged few who don’t have to work while in high school. Innovation Zone funding means that rather than working low wage jobs and seeing their grades suffer, students at Health can connect what they are learning in the classroom with on-the-job training while getting paid and working toward graduation requirements.

Our students right now - if they wanted to go work for an eye doctor, they have all the experience they need to go get a job. We have hired two of them already.

—Diane Sanchez,
Optometry Tech at Health Leadership High School

Plus, the work-based learning experiences – whether capstones or internships – are up to the student and tailored to their individual interests and needs. Students have been placed in several different University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) departments, at the City of Albuquerque, local animal shelters, thrift stores, blood donation clinics, optometrist offices, and many more.

Employers who have hosted interns brag about how great of a job they’ve done and many of them have hired the students as employees after their internships concluded.

Career Pathways and Passion Projects

Students at Health can take dual credit classes from Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) and graduate with college credits and certifications. While in high school, students can get up to 18 different certifications so that by the time they graduate, they are that much more prepared for the workforce. Many HLHS students get certified in HIPAA/FERPA, CPR, Teen Mental Health First Aid, Shaken Baby Syndrome Prevention, Blood Pressure Screening, Early Childhood Development, and Blood Borne Pathogens, to name a few. They can also become Certified Nurse Assistants (CNA), Community Health Workers (CHW), and/or Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT).
I've done 46 CNM dual credit classes. It includes being certified in CHW (Certified Health Worker) and CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant)

—Daisy Roque,
Student at Health Leadership High School

HLHS students complete a capstone project each year, culminating with a senior capstone project that they call their “passion project.” A capstone is a months-long project that students do instead of or in addition to traditional classroom instruction and testing. Students engage in self-directed, and community-based learning experiences to create a project that teachers periodically grade for evidence of competence. This is different from an internship in that there’s also a structured classroom component and a research project. At the end of the project, students present it in what's called an exhibition of learning to school, family, and community.

The “passion projects” at Health are based entirely around the student’s interests and they spend their whole senior year researching, interning, and really immersing themselves in an issue that they find meaningful. These projects can be, but are not necessarily related to the health field. In fact, students at HLHS are not required to be interested in the medical field to attend the school – many are not or realize they’re not after learning more about it – but they still attend because of the school’s focus on project-based learning, social-emotional support, and equity.

Daisy Roque is interested in the medical field – she wants to attend UNM and become a traveling nurse eventually – but her senior capstone project is on domestic violence in Hispanic communities. Whatever the topic is, students can find support to pursue it.

The Innovation Zone Initiative goes beyond financial support; schools also receive technical assistance in implementing or expanding innovative approaches as part of the grant. As part of the IZ Initiative, Future Focused has helped Health with internship placement and support - making sure students, teachers, and employers are all learning and growing. Health’s administration and teachers have also worked hard at maintaining community partnerships so that students have access to a wide range of opportunities.

Teachers and administrators at Health Leadership High School know that the key to keeping students engaged and in school is letting them bring their own identities and interests into the classroom. New Mexico is struggling with chronic absenteeism, but by allowing students to pursue projects that they find meaningful while also making sure they get paid for their time is a proven way to get them not just coming to school, but also actively participating while they’re there.

Another student, Marra Murphy, said that she approached her teacher with an idea for a passion project about mental health in Native American communities. They brainstormed her options and got her the help of a film crew. What she eventually created was a short film called “Hózhó,” which ended up winning her an award. In the process, she engaged with her community, learned about film production, and got to meet people who might help her find more opportunities in film after high school.

My film, Hózhó, won the Native Youth Filmmaking Emergence award this last Sunday. It was pretty cool because Wes Studi himself handed it to me.

—Diane Sanchez,
Optometry Tech at Health Leadership High School

A Culture of Belonging, Safety, and Care


When students and teachers are supported academically, emotionally, and socially, the school community becomes a place where they feel safe and cared for. Mental health and emotional support is another key component of the Innovation Zone Initiative because in order for students to thrive, they need access to social and emotional learning, not just academic learning. Health started the Loretta Armenta Loving Arts (LALA) Healing Center to offer students, staff, and community members a physical space in the school where they could go to be supported with their mental health and overall wellness.

The LALA Healing Center is named after Loretta Armenta, who was President/CEO of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce and a mentor to many in the Hispanic community in Albuquerque. According to Denise Armenta, who runs the Center and is the Director of Student Support at HLHS, Loretta Armenta was an icon. “Loretta believed that everyone in our community should have the opportunity to live life to their fullest potential,” she says.

According to their mission statement, the LALA Health Center “provides services that address trauma through multiple avenues: behavioral health treatments, biophysical therapies, group therapies and classes, and core community support services.” This includes offering yoga classes, equine therapy, and various group resources as well as more individualized support to staff, students, and community members. Having the Health Center is an important piece of the high school’s commitment to equity as well as caring for the whole person. Health’s student population and community is primarily made up of people with marginalized identities and backgrounds – communities who report more instances of trauma and have historically had less access to mental health services.

Eventually, the school also plans on opening up their very own health clinic, which would be available not just to students and staff, but also to the community. They have the space already built in their building and are working on staffing it with outside doctors as well as with their own student interns, which would provide even more opportunities for students to get hands-on learning without even leaving the school building.


Another innovative approach that Health has taken has been to form a student-led Equity Council, both in response to the Yazzie/Martinez ruling and to involve students and give them more agency in their own education. While the council is student-led, it also involves representatives from school leadership, school staff, parents and family members, community members, and members of Nations, Tribes, or Pueblos. The Equity Council is working hard to actively address the educational inequities that exist within Bilingual Education, Indian Education, and Special Education. In addition to planning and hosting events for things like cultural celebrations and discussion of current events, council members have created and sent out surveys to students to see what they needed and weren’t getting from their education.

Ricardo Sandoval, a student on the Equity Council, says that the experience has been extremely meaningful to him.

“I’ve learned what kind of support students here need more of and how to advocate for them - for us,” says Sandoval. He also says the experience has taught him what equity means and about the challenges that various communities face.

The Equity Council is not the only way that students are advocating for themselves and each other. Health’s dedication to involving students in their own education has gotten them attention nationally. Four students from Health Leadership High School will be traveling to Washington, DC this spring to participate in the National School Redesign Showcase put on by Johns Hopkins University. A total of 15 schools will be present and the Health team will be joined by four other New Mexico high schools. The goal is to involve students in the process of redesigning schools to better serve them – giving students agency instead of having a top down approach to education.

Throughout this school year, Lisa Ortiz has worked with a team of students to conduct research and test theories about how to strengthen student and teacher agency and help everyone find a sense of belonging. Ortiz says that the experience is about students finding autonomy in their education and getting them to want to be at school.

We have been able to do so many different things within our classroom that are just phenomenal.

—Lisa Ortiz,
Science Instructor/Advisor at Health Leadership High School

The showcase is an opportunity to bring student and teacher voices to the national conversation on improving education at a critical time. It will also give policymakers the chance to connect with school teams from across the country as they share their insights. The students at Health are excited to be representing their school and their state and hope to help policymakers understand what students need to stay engaged in school.

All of these strategies - making school culturally and linguistically relevant, giving students paid work-based learning opportunities and emotional support, and making sure they have a say in how and what they learn - are helping students be more invested in their education and in their communities. This is why we need more innovative approaches all throughout the state and country. When young people are engaged in learning outside of the classroom, they become more connected to people and places around them and when given the opportunity, they can create change that benefits everyone. In the case of Health Leadership High School, students are turning their paid internships into jobs, advocating for themselves and each other, and changing the way we think about education.

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