This building, at 6090 Zenith Court in Rio Rancho, could be the place where Explore Academy RIO students head to school in August 2023. (Gary Herron/Observer)



Why Rio Rancho? Because we have a lot of community folks who want one in Rio Rancho — Karen Woerner



  • Community hearing
  • Tuesday, July 19
  • 4-6 p.m.
  • Rio Rancho campus of New Mexico Highlands University, 1700 Grande Boulevard


It’s worked in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, and veteran educator Karen Woerner believes it can work in Rio Rancho, too.

Explore Academy ABQ first opened as a state-authorized charter school for grades 9-12 in August 2014. Founded by former Rio Rancho High School science teacher Justin Baiardo, the school uses the innovative Explore Learning model, based on choices that promote student growth and responsibility while providing an individualized educational path for each student. It has since added grades K-8.

Rio Rancho may soon get one of its own.

“Why Rio Rancho? Because we have a lot of community folks who want one in Rio Rancho,” Woerner said. “We have a lot of kids going to the Albuquerque campus (near Jefferson and Osuna NE).”

Woerner said the Albuquerque school received 1,400 applications for an anticipated 350 vacancies. Parents in Rio Rancho are among those hoping their child is chosen via a lottery.

In 2021, Explore Academy opened in Las Cruces.

Explore Academy has earned a New Mexico Public Education Department “A” rating, becoming one of the highest performing schools in New Mexico. Explore Academy has achieved the highest rate of student academic growth in English and mathematics of all high schools, public and charter schools, in the state of New Mexico.

Explore Academy RIO – after formal approval for a charter by the state’s Public Education Commission – would open in time for the 2023-24 school year.

“The community is asking for it,” Woerner said. Her two daughters are Cleveland High School graduates. “I’ve always been very passionate about youth and education all my life.”

After departing from RRPS, Woerner worked several years for the state PED’s charter school division, lastly as its deputy director.

“That division oversaw all state charter schools, and at that time there were 52 in the state,” she said. “The majority … are in Albuquerque, and there are two in Rio Rancho.”

Those two are the ASK Academy and SABE.

Woerner asks anyone interested in learning about the school to attend a community hearing, slated for Tuesday, July 19, from 4-6 p.m. at the Rio Rancho campus of New Mexico Highlands University, 1700 Grande Boulevard, near Sara Road.

That’s an important day for the new school. Approval by the PEC, which could be granted on Aug. 19, is largely dependent on community support and interest at the hearing. Residents at the hearing will hear about the proposal and provide input.

“The biggest freedom is in the pedagogy in the classroom,” she said. “How you do the teaching, what instructional materials you use.

“(Baiardo) was observing how students are more engaged in elective courses, or with one teacher over another, even if it was the same subject matter,” she said. “So he kind of had these ideas of how you could teach in a different way. In order to do that, he started a charter school.”

As the Explora Academy model is set up, she said, “There are (eight seminars) that are 22 school days long and each focuses on a specific set of standards, rather than moving through the whole school year. So a student must complete that seminar on those standards and pass that proficiency before they move on to the next steps of standards. Eight of these of these seminars make a year of study, for example.

“What impressed me the most about this model is even at the secondary level, all the instruction – the assessment and the grading – is standards-based,” she said. “You don’t get points for the grading and tissue, you don’t get make-up work at the end to make it up, at the very end to get your average up, you have to pass these standards and keep going.

“If you don’t, then you repeat that same seminar, either with a different teacher or a different ‘flavor,’” she added. “If they miss something, they don’t just keep moving on.”

That “flavor,” she said, or theme of the classes, is often something interesting to students, leading to better engagement.

What impressed her the most, from her days overseeing charter schools, is students mastering the standards.

Woerner has worked from Baiardo since July 1, 2021, and she’ll be the Rio Rancho school’s director of compliance. The new school in Rio Rancho has its board members working in the financial, education and legal fields.

More on the school

Plans call for the school to start with grades K-2 and sixth grade, with an anticipated enrollment of 318 students and a 16:1 pupil to teacher ratio, Woerner said.

It will become a “true K-12 school by ’29,” she added, expecting 350 students in grades K-5 and 700 in grades 6-12. Explore Academy RIO will also serve special education students.

The proposed school will be at 6090 Zenith Court, just south of Rio Rancho Public Schools’ new CTE building. The building is the current home for Concentrix, a data-processing call center.

The typical school day will have seven hour-long periods, which includes two “flex” periods. Classes will start at the top of each hour, she said, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Each Friday will have time set aside for clubs.

“It’s gonna have a unique flavor, based on the teachers and the students who attend,” she said.

The school is expected to have some sports teams competing in a Metro area leagues, although students, often with better skills, will be allowed to play for Cleveland or Rio Rancho high school teams, depending on which side of Northern Boulevard they reside.

More information on Explore Academy–Rio Rancho is at