New Roots Charter School Opens in Ithaca
By Emily Miles
Scrawled in marker and crayon on faded beige paper, a commitment is boldly proclaimed on the walls of the New Roots School in downtown Ithaca: “Respect yourself, respect others, respect the environment.” Students and faculty members of the newest public education institution in the Ithaca City School District are learning to embrace the motto both within the school and the Ithaca community.
Ithaca’s New Roots Charter School currently serves just over 100 students in grades nine and 10, and will extend to grades 11 and 12 as the years progress. The school, which will reach approximately 225 students at full enrollment, features small class sizes, mentoring relationships with faculty and a Farm to School meal program.
The school has established its “new roots” in the Clinton House on Seneca Street in the Commons. The school also uses space in the Women’s Community Center next door. Every day, students go to this open gymnasium for lunch, physical education activities and even Rock Band practice.
Chair of Board of Trustees Jason Hamilton and Principal Tina Nilsen-Hodges cofounded the school this year after being certified by the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute. The school was opened Sept. 9, 2009, in the Ithaca City School District.
As part of a grant for integrating sustainability into education, Hamilton, a chemistry professor at Ithaca College, began developing a high school curriculum that covered sustainability topics. The professor determined that sustainability cannot be taught as a “module in a class,” and began searching for a way to integrate sustainability on a larger level in local education.
At the time, ICSD was not interested in a large transformation within the district, so Hamilton and Nilsen-Hodges began to explore alternative options. They decided a charter school was the most viable option. The New York State Association of Charter Schools soon accepted their idea.
In contrast with the belief that charter schools are only for big cities, Hamilton said, “As far as the state is concerned, Ithaca is an appropriate place for a charter school.”
Nationwide, there have been a variety of educational reforms starting in elementary and middle school, but most students return to a traditional educational model in high school. While Hamilton agrees that starting in high school leaves students with years of “educational-cultural baggage,” he decided to do it.
New Roots serves prior homeschooled students and those who were not successful in the traditional system. In order to do this, the founders were faced with not only “redesigning the way education was delivered,” Hamilton explained, but “redesigning what was being delivered.”
One of the main curriculum models being used by New Roots is the Expeditionary Learning model. The alternative model educates students through interdisciplinary and project-based “expeditions” that culminate in exhibits at the Cayuga Nature Center, nature hikes to the gorges and public service to the community.
“It’s just a more engaged style of learning,” said parent Kathy Spencer, who has sent her children to public school until this year. “We want her to be a part of it all, not lost in the numbers.”
Her daughter, Gretchen Spencer, agrees.
“Now I have fun learning,” remarked Gretchen, a sophomore at New Roots who enjoyed her old school, but appreciates the intimate size of the learning community. Though Spencer makes a nearly 60-mile round trip to school everyday, she says it is worth it. “I want to be in the first graduating class.”
Controversy initially surrounded the school, yet as the school year progressed, most opposition faded. Hamilton believes that controversy will “ebb and flow” with the budget season, issues within school district and new school years.
While members of the community in opposition never numbered more than 10, Hamilton admitted they were “worthy opponents.”
Some critics disagreed with the district funding of New Roots. Hamilton thinks that the discussion should surround education rather than money.
“Our job is not to develop the most inexpensive public school system,” Hamilton said. “But our job is to develop the best public education system that we can possibly afford.”
New York state has millions of dollars earmarked that will offset the amount redirected to New Roots from the ICSD for up to five years. This fund will offset costs within the district, making it run just as any traditional start-up school and costing little extra from the district.
“We can’t afford not to have educational innovation like New Roots,” Hamilton said.
New Roots freshman Sam Jones said he thinks the program offers a balance between textbook work and hands-on activities.
“It’s a good change,” said Jones, who has been homeschooled for most of his educational career. “I’m really lucky to have the opportunity.”
Emily Miles is a freshman journalism major who also plays Rock Band during class time, but not actually in class. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.