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Farewell To Steve Smith

At long last, Steve Smith has "graduated" from Animas. He is passing the role of junior chemistry teacher to Madi Neukirch, and leaving behind a legacy that will never be forgotten.


Steve Smith first walked through the doors of Animas High School in the spring of 2011. "It seemed really exciting," Steve recalled, "though when I was first thinking about whether or not I would want to teach at Animas High School, I had a hard time envisioning how you would do project-based chemistry…Ultimately, I saw what (the founders) were doing, and it seemed like something I wanted to be part of."


But Steve had to figure out a project-based lesson a lot more quickly than he'd expected: he did so on the very day of his interview. "I somehow had a miscommunication with the Head of School at the time about what the interview entailed…I show up, and we go through a couple of the normal interview things, and then he said, 'Okay, you'll be teaching your lesson next period,' and I just kinda paused and thought, 'Okay. I'm teaching a lesson next period that I have not planned for.'"


Rather than backing down or rescheduling, however, Steve thought on his feet. He quickly turned an idea he'd previously read about into a project-based science lesson, asking students to gather spare materials and make their own timepieces. "I had the students try to build a pendulum that they could use to accurately keep track of, like, 30 seconds of time. It was fantastic to see all the ideas that came out."


"His Bonanza was astonishing," remembered teacher Jessica McCallum."I knew within seconds he was our teacher."


That brief lesson was only the beginning of Steve Smith's legendary twelve years as our school's first chemistry teacher. Over his time teaching here, Steve changed the way countless students thought about science, with electives like Astronomy and Quantum Computing alongside his junior chemistry class.


It wasn't always easy, but Steve was with Animas through thick and thin, teaching his students the same resourcefulness and creativity that he showed in his first lesson. Some of his fondest memories are of Ospreys finding beauty in less-than-ideal situations. "The first year, taking students up to the (Fort Lewis) chemistry lab…at that time, we didn't have a good relationship with the 9-R school district like we do now, and so we hired the City of Durango trolley to take the students up…there's a picture of all the students with their safety goggles on, on the trolley, riding up to the chem lab."


From the beginning, Steve was struck by the importance of community at Animas. "When I was in the student interview (at my Bonanza), I asked them what they liked about the school, and I really expected them to tell me project-based learning, and they told me (it was) the fact that it's just such a strong, tight-knit community. That has stuck with me for the entire time I've been at Animas, and how I see this institution is defined- it's defined around community."

Through the years, Steve became an integral part of our community. "I remember an exhibition we had…when my second advisory was in their junior year, so seven years in, that involved having meals at people's homes, and they cooked the meals and talked about the chemistry of the food. Sitting down and having a dinner with students and their parents- that was an exhibition I really treasured."


Steve's work towards the new building was also invaluable- our school wouldn't be where it is today without him. He served on the AHS Building Corporation for several years, applying for grants, hiring representatives, and planning for the future of Animas High. After our school was given the BEST grant, he worked with the Design Advisory Group to help architects put together blueprints that fulfilled our school's needs. "Walking into this building and seeing everything that my colleagues do, and seeing this project that's been thirteen and a half years in the making- or fifteen if you go back to when our founders started the vision for Animas High School- that's really, really impressive," Steve mused.


Even as he leaves our school, Steve continues to be a trailblazer, becoming LPEA's first engineering technician for distributed energy resources. He will be working to improve the efficiency of Durango's power grid by distributing energy to reduce peak consumption.


"In the day to day, I think I'm going to be looking at a lot of spreadsheets, I'm going to be looking at a lot of data, I'm going to be talking to people and learning about new technologies, and then in the long term, hopefully helping to implement programs, maybe design new systems that will serve the La Plata Electric area."

Even as Steve moves on to fill this role in our community, he hopes to stay connected with Animas in the future.


For now, this is his parting advice to Ospreys: "We are all crew, not passengers…If we see ourselves as a unified group that's trying to accomplish shared goals, that means we're doing interesting work, that means we're caring about each other…the way we interact with each other, the way we treat our facilities, the way we treat our pursuit of knowledge…not slacking in any of those regards, but being people who care about each other and want the best for themselves and for others."


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