Editor’s Note: This is part II of a series. To read part I, click here.

ITHACA, NY – Of all the words that the average Ithacan might choose to describe New Roots Charter School, “collegiate” is probably not on top of the list.

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Yet, in speaking with the students there and watching how they interacted with their educators, I was reminded far more of my days as a college student than my time as a high schooler.

As one example, each of the students I spoke to was pursuing a Capstone Project — a project that requires the students to identify an issue or challenge and work independently to research and workshop a potential solution. New Roots students must complete their capstone projects to graduate.

While certainly not limited to higher education, the idea of a Capstone Project at the very least evokes the individualized, less structured type of learning more often seen in those institutions.

The capstone projects of the students I spoke with were quite varied, although they did all fit in with the sustainability and social justice ethos of the school.

Some examples include: working to address sexism in school dress codes, aiding immigrants and refugees in getting health care, organizing a 5k fundraising event, organizing a student council that gives everyone opportunity to participate and working toward a ban on plastic bags in Ithaca.

The “typical” New Roots student

While New Roots prides itself on being accepting and welcoming to students of all types, it’s clear that New Roots is an atypical school. So what does the “typical” student of an atypical high school look like?

Of the students I spoke to, each had their own story as to how they came to be enrolled at New Roots. For one, it was because of the project-based learning and college preparatory programs. For another, it was the sustainability and community-driven aspects outlined in the school’s mission. A third student felt the small community would be a smoother transition from home-schooling than a public school..

For some of the students, New Roots provided an alternative when traditional schools weren’t working out.

Morningstar Quinn-Fowler said that he came to New Roots from Dryden because he wasn’t getting the support he needed there, despite having many meetings where the district promised to provide it.

Noah Brown and Shinequa Gonzalez both said that they came to New Roots because of bullying. Gonzalez said it had gotten so bad that it was affecting her grades. Both said they came to New Roots to get away from there old schools and try something new, although the two did report somewhat different experiences at New Roots.

“Here it’s a lot easier to be yourself,” Brown said. “You don’t have to worry about people judging you. It goes back to the idea of ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything’ … I’m sure not everyone agrees with everyone here but we don’t make fun of each other for it.”

Gonzalez had some mixed feelings on the issue, saying, “It’s not completely different than a public regular high school, there are still problems with people making fun of each other, that’s not going to change anywhere you go … I mean, it is a high school with teenagers, teenagers are pretty reckless, they don’t care about each other very often.”

However, Gonzalez, who had previously attended Ithaca High School, explained that New Roots was still a substantial improvement because its smaller size ensured that help was available if needed.

“IHS has a zero tolerance for bullying, and every time I went to the office and even my parents came down, we continuously talked to them, we continuously told them things were happening and they said, ‘Yup, we’ll take care of it, yup we’ll take care of it’ and nothing ever happened. That does not happen here,” Gonzalez said.

Brown agreed on that point, saying, “We have more tools to work toward everyone’s needs, instead of public schools which are very cookie-cutter, you sit in your seat, you do your work, you leave. It’s not like that here.”

Learners and teachers

All of the students spoke positively of their academic experience at New Roots, with many praising the project-based learning approach. Each of the six students I spoke to reported that they planned to attend college, with goals ranging from special education to architecture to pre-med.

“I have been doing better academically than I was in my old school. The learning style is much more hands­-on,” said Quinn-Fowler. “In my old school, it was all just taking notes and I don’t feel like I learned or was able to retain as much information. This different approach has definitely help me a lot.”

“This approach has really help me and others understand concepts better. It also helps students become more physically and mentally active rather than being stuck in the classroom,” said another student, Nikiah Hakes.

The students also praised the life-skills taught at New Roots. “I think that the learning style at New Roots has better prepared me for real world experiences. We work with more project­-based learning that allows us to work out in the community,” wrote Liz Lust in an email. “I don’t feel that the standard, classroom and textbook based learning in your average school prepares students enough for the real world.”

Lust said that she had been taking college-level courses through TC3 since her junior year. Nikiah Hakes said that New Roots had helped her pursue an internship and make connections with with community organizations for future opportunities.

I also spoke with two of New Roots teachers to see how the New Roots model worked from their end.

Kris Haines-Sharpe, who has been with New Roots since it opened, said, “I’ve been stretched to hone my skills as an educator and life-long learner at New Roots … Greater freedom to design innovative and engaging projects takes more time than planning for a conventional curriculum.  Drawing from the wider region means great diversity and also presents challenges in terms of different levels of preparation and parent participation.”

Another New Roots English teacher, Colleen Emond just started at New Roots this school year.

“The schools I’ve previously experienced had their own strengths, but none of them were as successful at fostering a true community feeling,” she said. “Here, students are very protective of one another. They take pride in being a part of this school. They have a voice and their individuality is celebrated rather than suppressed.”

“From a teaching perspective, I feel there is much more flexibility regarding curricular planning and I feel that our administrators truly trust their staff to provide rigorous and relevant lessons,” she added.

Both of the teachers identified themselves as lifelong learners and said that New Roots frequent re-evaluations and curricular changes have been both challenging and rewarding.

“The point of any educational institution is to foster a sense of lifelong learning. We have no hope of instilling that in our students if we don’t model that behavior in the way the school operates,” Emond said. “Collectively and individually, our staff is constantly reevaluating best practices and making adjustments.”

Both teachers felt that New Roots provided a solid academic foundation for students, Emond going so far as to say “I believe our school is singularly suited to support students for college and career readiness.” Emond detailed the many programs New Roots runs to help students prepare for their next step, including internship programs, individual academic advisors, and assistance with financial aid and entrance essays.

“We [prepare our students for life beyond high school] by teaching that a growth mindset frames all experiences in developing stamina and resiliency. We teach persistence in the face of difficulty.  Students, here or elsewhere, come to school with an entire world of experiences either shoring them up or creating challenges.  We are teaching students to think, to ask questions, to delve deep into the challenges they meet along the way,” said Haines-Sharpe.

New Roots’ Elevator Music and Art Gallery, which was converted from the Clinton House’s old elevator. It dates back to 1828. (Photo: Ithaca Voice)

Public perception

There is one other throughline that came up with almost every person I spoke to at New Roots: the question of how the Ithaca community perceives the school.

“I keep hearing people say it’s for kids with special needs,” said senior Kahli Merriman.

“Or drug addicts,” Hakes chimed in.

“It’s really not like that at all,” Merriman said. “It’s more kids who just want to be in a smaller community where people understand them.”

“Everybody here has their own story, whether it’s tragic or incredible, they all landed here and they all have a story to tell,” said Hakes. “It’s not for just a certain type of people.”

The students noted how people might see teenagers smoking on the block where New Roots is located and assume that the whole school is made up of delinquents. Sometimes, they said, those are kids from other districts, high school drop outs or even college students, but it still gets attributed to New Roots.

English Teacher Kris Haines-Sharpe saw the problem from the educator’s side as well, saying, “I think we could improve on our ability to share the positive learning that happens here. So often we get mired in responding to misunderstandings about our school and that detracts from the energy and passion we bring to our work.”


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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.