April 30, 2009

Charter School Planning Proceeds, But Questions Still Remain

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The global movement for building a sustainable world is planting new roots in Ithaca.
The New Roots charter school, set to open in the fall, may be Ithaca’s answer to the United Nations’ call for a “rethinking of education.”
In 2005 the U.N. began the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development with the vision to “integrate the principles, values and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning,” according to UNESCO.org.
The New Roots School is meant to be an application of those ideas, expanding beyond the classroom and into the streets and natural areas of Ithaca.
According to Jason Hamilton, the president of the board of trustees for New Roots, the school’s goal is “Sustainable Education.” A large part of the curricular focus is on applying classroom lessons to community projects that meet needs for environmental, social and economic development at a local level.
New Roots students will contribute to Ithaca’s sustainability by restoring wetlands, researching agriculture in the context of climate change, bringing solar panels to low-income neighborhoods and creating green business networks, according to a press release. In the spirit of sustainability, the meal program at New Roots is a “Farm to School” initiative to support locally grown and organic products.
At full enrollment this fall, the school can provide for approximately 125 ninth and 10th grade students.
The New Roots School will receive transition aid from New York State in 2010 if it enrolls at least 2 percent of the Ithaca City School District’s high school population. New Roots needed 48 more students as of its April 21 Board of Trustees meeting in order to qualify for over $1 million in state aid, according to The Lansing Star.
Currently, the ICSD is allotting $12,100 per enrolled student, about 70 percent of the district’s allocated per-pupil funds. $847,490 total was set aside for New Roots in the ICSD budget for next year.
“I think the advantage we have in being a start-up school is that we will simply budget for the amount of money coming in,” Principal Tina Nilsen-Hodges told the Ithaca Journal. “It doesn’t affect us in the same way it would a school that has existing programs that anticipate an increase for next year.”
However, some are skeptical of the funds it would take to make New Roots a reality.
“It’s horrible timing right now for the district,” Beth Kunz, a member of the Ithaca school board and events planner for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning told The Sun on March 24. “For each student that enrolls in New Roots, we lose money. It compounds the amount we have to lose from our budget.”
Prof. David R. Lee, applied economics and management, has doubts about the sustainability of government funding for New Roots.
“The oft-heard claim that New Roots will simply proportionally reallocate tax dollars away from existing schools and students, leaving no net new costs to taxpayers or negative impacts on existing schools, is unfounded and based on short-term (non-sustainable) budgeting and a flawed understanding of the realities of public school financing and operations,” he wrote in a March 27 guest column for The Ithaca Journal. “As one-time grants expire and temporary state transition support declines, the financing burden will unquestionably fall on local taxpayers.”
Despite debate over the reasons for its establishment and taxpayer accountability for its funding, charter schools like New Roots are not newcomers in Ithaca. In fact, alternative education seems to be a high demand. According to the New Roots website, Ithaca High School was founded as a charter school, then Ithaca Academy, in 1875. The Lehman Alternative Community opened its doors in 1974, providing 260 students with an education “based on the premise that students have the right to make decisions about their own education,” according to its website.
“We’re one of the few districts that has an alternative middle and high school,” Robert Ainslie, president of the Ithaca City School District Board of Education, said. “We are a small city district. I challenge you to find another district of our size that has that.”
Regardless, the school board decision to open the New Roots School has sparked a fair amount of controversy in the Ithaca community of late.
Fears of state budget cuts threatening LACS, though quelled for the time being, elicited a strong response from the school’s supporters, The Sun reported March 24.
“This is an educational experiment,” Ainslie said. “Would I send my high-schooler to an experiment? No. That’s a tough time to risk your future on an experimental school.”
Ainslie stated the importance of a high school’s track record in applying to colleges.
“Ithaca high school has a good track record, the Lehman Alternative School has a very good track record.”
Hamilton acknowledged the advantages of LACS.
“I think Lehman Alternative School is just great,” he said. “Some of what we’re doing is certainly inspired by them.”
Tina Nilsen-Hodges, the principal of the New Roots School, completed her administrative internship at LACS.
“[But] only about one in three kids that apply to Lehman actually get in,” Hamilton said. “It’s just not big enough to meet the demand. There’s a strong demand for alternatives in this town.”
Hamilton hopes New Roots will help meet this demand and does not believe that the novelty of the New Roots educational philosophy will affect the college choices afforded to its graduating students.
“Our kids are going to have to pass the same sets of exams as the IHS kids,” he said. “The diploma is going to be the same as any other in New York State.”
Students at New Roots, like Ithaca High School, will be required to take Regents exams to graduate. LACS is exempt from this requirement under its charter.
Hamilton also cited unique programs offered at New Roots that may even give an edge to applications.
“We’re forming a partnership with TC3 so that by junior and senior year, in at least some of our core classes kids will be given direct college credit while they’re still in high school,” Hamilton said, citing the partnership as an alternative to Advanced Placement testing.
Hamilton also referred to the initiative at New Roots for sustaining Ithaca’s community.
“We will have an integrated experiential component which goes really beyond anything another high school can offer.”
According to Hamilton, New Roots will cater to those students who fall between the cracks at IHS.
“If you look at the Equity Report Card [an initiative started in 2005 that breaks down academic achievement by race and economic status], there are groups who are underperforming,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton referenced the recent New York State educational summit as part of the initiative for founding New Roots. The outcome of the summit stated, according to Hamilton, that the current high school system is obsolete and a reworking of education was in order.
“There’s an international movement for sustainability in education,” Hamilton said. He believes New Roots will fit that niche.
New Roots has received letters of support from local businesses and educators, and over 1000 people have posted their names to the school’s website in support.
According to Hamilton, New Roots has no solid curriculum yet, but rather a “curricular framework” necessary to acquire its charter from the State of New York.
“We don’t have to lay out the gory details ahead of time,” Hamilton said. “It’s a kind of day-by-day, week-by-week curriculum we’re developing after hiring our teachers so they can be involved.”
New Roots has received over 150 applicants for teaching positions from Ithaca, the U.S. and foreign countries. The final location for New Roots will be announced Friday at 1 p.m.