New Roots reflects on ten years

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Some didn’t think it would last five years, but as the next school year approaches New Roots Charter School is getting ready to celebrate 10 years in the community.


The public charter school with a social justice and environmentally conscious education model has not been without controversy since it first opened its doors to students in September of 2009. As with many charter schools, residents of the Ithaca City School district were concerned about funding being diverted from local public schools to New Roots, and if the school’s model would be successful. In the beginning, graduation rates for New Roots were abysmal, around 51 percent. But with smaller graduating class sizes and a new kind of model, the numbers weren’t exactly a surprise.


Now, New roots has successfully renewed its charter twice and has raised its graduation rates to around 80 percent. It took some time but the school’s numbers are on an upward trend that members of the administration feel confident will continue to climb.


Reflecting back on 10 years, superintendent Tina Nilsen-Hodges said that one of the biggest lessons she has learned is that through a collective vision it’s possible to make education for justice and sustainability successful in a public education system.


“It’s not just about topics, it’s about how students learn to see themselves and their work in the world, their relationship to the community, their capacity to work with each other to define a goal or a vision and to work toward that together, to make decisions together, and ultimately, in rapidly changing times, to live joyfully and well,” Nilsen-Hodges said.


Even as the superintendent and creator of the idea for a charter school with a focus on justice and sustainability she wasn’t sure the school would make it in Ithaca. Now, with 10 years in, she said it feels like New Roots is hitting its stride and coming into its own.


Students from the very first class have had time to graduate high school, and a four-year degree program, and even start in on masters and Ph.D. programs. As the school celebrates a decade, Nilsen-Hodges said there has been talk of putting together a reunion of alums to celebrate.


“We see our former students thriving in college and in the workplace,” she said. “For me, one of the most satisfying things is reencountering them as young adults and hearing about their lives and the experience here at the school has supported their finding a meaningful path as young adults.”


Nilsen-Hodges moved to the Ithaca area in 2002 with her husband looking for a community that shared her vision for a different kind of school. She and her husband, both educators, became some of the first residents of the Ecovillage, and she discovered a group of people ready to try a new idea.


Like many new things, there was pushback.


“This is a disruptive innovation,” Nilsen-Hodges explained. “It’s like planting a seed in the middle of an existing ecosystem, as that begins to take root it begins to change the nature of the ecosystem.”


When it comes to the typical measures of success for a school, including graduation rates, Nilsen-Hodges argues that those numbers are more complicated than most would realize.


“Graduation rates is a very good example of how a complex issue gets distilled down into a soundbite,” she said.


Graduation rates are just one of the factors used when New Roots renews its charter and measures success. While Ithaca High School has a graduating class of hundreds and one student from the cohort (group of students that enter ninth grade the same year and are expected to graduate in four years) may only be a fraction of a percentage loss if they do not graduate in four years, because New Roots has a much smaller cohort (around 30 to 40) one student counts for a much larger percentage if they do not graduate with their cohort.


“I have not found a simple way to bring people into the conversation about graduation rates and what they really mean,” Nilson-Hodges explained. “What I can say, is that despite all of those factors at play, our graduation rate last year was at 81 percent.”


Early last year the school started talking about expanding and opening a middle school. Currently, Nilson-Hodges said that New Roots is in talks with its charter authorizers and has high hopes that a middle school authorization will be ready in fall of next year. Ideally, the school would like to open a middle school in the empty building across the street, but before a space can be purchased the charter must be approved.


“We know there is this demand right there waiting for it,” said Michael Mazza, head of Community Engagement for New Roots. “When we look at the statistics of our students, students that start here day one in ninth grade have a much greater chance of success than students who start at tenth, eleventh, or twelfth.”


To celebrate not only the 10 years the school has been around but one of the things it has proven itself to be so great at creating, New Roots will be co-producing a new music festival this May called Rootstock, in partnership with Grassroots music festival.


Mazza explained that because the school has been so successful at helping and encouraging students to create bands of their own, now those bands were hungry for an opportunity to showcase their product. Thus, Rootstock was born. Funding for the festival is still being determined and the school is looking for interested parties to sponsor the event.


Applications to play in Rootstock will be taken through early April when a selection committee will choose between 10 to 15 bands to play. Any type of band, as long as it’s local, can apply.


But, along with Rootstock, New Roots plans on merging the festival with its own Youth Entrepreneurship Market (YEM). While the market in years past has been held at Press Bay Alley, this year it will be paired with the music festival. Student anywhere between fourth and twelfth grade will have the opportunity to take four workshops to cover creating a business plan, mapping a budget, creating a marketing strategy, and more, to become a young entrepreneur. Over 100 young entrepreneurs have participated in YEM over the last two years, learning each step of what it takes to create and sustain a business.

Correction: Rootstock will be held on May 18, not in April, as a previous version of this article stated.

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