ITHACA, N.Y. — Hundreds of students in Tompkins County attend summer school, where they read books and solve mathematical equations inside a classroom, which has not proven to be the most appealing way to spend summer vacation. Now there’s an opportunity for summer school students to take their skills outside of the classroom. In true Ithaca fashion, students worked together to plan a brand new local festival, Summer Fest Fest, which was open to the rest of the community.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, children gathered at the Stewart Park playground to run in the sun and celebrate Ithaca’s first Summer Fest Fest. It included sports, food, a dunk tank, face painting, henna tattooing, a bounce house and music courtesy of Elephant Sound Inc.

The festival was thought up by middle school students from Project Innovation, a project-based learning program where students from kindergarten through middle school practice their reading, writing and mathematical skills over the summer. The event was run by the students, and since it took place during camp hours, many campers from Stewart Park Day Camp attended as well.

Theresa Souchet, one of the co-teachers who works with Project Innovation middle school students, explained how Project Innovation is different from regular summer school.

“Project Innovation is a newer concept that’s project-based, which means students choose one project that carries them over a number of weeks, and all activities are focused on this culminating project that they participate in,” she said. “At the end of it, they reflect and think about ways to make it better.”

Angela Knight, the other middle school co-teacher, said their students have practiced the same skills they would learn in school through planning Summer Fest Fest by writing emails, having to work with a budget, and having to make phone calls and communicate as a team throughout the planning process.

“It’s a small group of 10 kids and they’re taking different roles that they wouldn’t normally take in the classroom,” Knight said. “They’re working on their reading and writing skills, and you’re seeing kids come out of their shells and feel more self-confident. We are giving them skills they might not get from sitting in a classroom.”

Souchet said that Ithaca College and the Cayuga Radio Group helped the students advertise the festival, and that the group had no funding and had to brainstorm different ways to raise money on their own. Knight said the group met with local experts such as Josh Dolan, who was the director of this year’s Ithaca Festival, about what goes into planning a festival.

Knight added that Project Innovation is a brand new program, and that if the Ithaca City School District continues it, there will be another Summer Fest Fest next year.

After Thursday’s Summer Fest Fest, the group reflected on how they felt the festival went.

“The event didn’t go exactly how we expected it. We thought there would be more people doing sports, but we had more people doing henna, face painting and the bounce house. The amount of people was more than we expected and everyone seemed to have a good time. Kids were enjoying the dunk tank and everything went smoothly. We thought it was a success!” said Nicharee Cokic, one of the student planners of Summer Fest Fest, who said the group reflected on the event as a class.

This year’s Summer Fest Fest was sponsored by the Ithaca City School District, the Ithaca Youth Bureau, Ithaca College and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Photos by J.T. Stone. 

J.T. Stone

J.T. Stone is a contributor for The Ithaca Voice and a 2020 graduate of Ithaca High School. Questions? Story tips? Email him at