New Roots for a New Day

“Now,” observed President Barack Obama in his Inaugural Address, “there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” Hearing these words, I found it hard, as one of the leaders of New Roots Charter School, not to think of recent debates in our community.

 Too often in the face of economic downturns and fiscal crisis we are urged to put aside new ideas and fresh thinking. “We can’t afford to do this now,” “maybe later,” “a terrible time to start a project like this” are common refrains in times like these. Yet this is exactly when new ideas and fresh thinking are called for. It is exactly because times are tough that we should be encouraging new approaches to educating our future leaders and the work force of tomorrow.

The commitment of New Roots to innovation, creativity, hands on learning, and interdisciplinary problem solving will provide students with the skills and tools they need to succeed in a world where, as President Obama puts it, “the ground has shifted beneath them” and many of the old assumptions no longer hold true.

Education to get ready for this new world, as the sight of Obama taking the oath of office underscores, cannot be a luxury for an elite few. Hence the commitment of New Roots to serve a broad, diverse student population, especially those who have struggled in a large school environment and require individual attention to flourish. Too many of our youth have talents, interests, and abilities that go unrecognized and unsupported in traditional high schools.

New Roots will be firmly grounded in research-based, nationally recognized educational models that support high achievement for every student. Working collaboratively, students will develop common visions, goals, and relationships of mutual respect across boundaries of race and class. This experience will directly address tensions that can develop among young people from different backgrounds, offering concrete examples of how they can co-create just, democratic, sustainable communities.

But we already have an alternative school in Ithaca, you say. We don’t need another one.  There is no question that the Lehman Alternative Community School has served and continues to serve a valuable role in the Ithaca City School District (ICSD). But there also is no question that there are students whose needs are still unmet, and that they face new challenges such as climate change, the end of cheap energy, global economic competition, and clean technology.

Perhaps the biggest misconception of all is the notion that we are engaged in a “zero-sum” game where there will inevitably be losers and winners. The Ithaca Journal’s editorial pages have been filled with this kind of thinking regarding New Roots.  If state aid weren’t going to New Roots, one of the arguments goes, then it could be used to help mitigate the budget cuts facing ICSD.

Of course, as the Journal itself reported, the money from New York State is a pass through from the federal government and couldn’t be used for any purpose other than the start up of charter schools.

But, even so, what about the money coming out of the ICSD budget that will be allocated to New Roots by state law? What gets forgotten here is that, for every student who attends New Roots, ICSD will get to keep a significant proportion of the cost for educating that student, even though the student will not be attending Ithaca High School. This means the overall impact will be a net increase, not decrease, in the per pupil amount for those students who remain in ICSD.

A recent study of charter schools in New Jersey, which operates according to a similar method of financing, bears out this conclusion. There charter schools receive 90 percent of what other district schools receive in per-pupil funding from state and local sources. All the more true, then, in New York, where charter schools receive an average of one-third less money per student than traditional public schools, and no money at all for buildings.

Rather than engage in these kinds of disputes, we should consider the new synergies that might be possible because of New Roots. Clearly, for example, the Obama Administration plans new investments in education, green-collar workforce development, and clean technology. Ithaca, because of its leadership on sustainability, might well become a beneficiary of these new federal funds, a possibility enhanced, not undermined, by the founding of New Roots, which is positioned to become a national model of sustainability education.

Choosing hope over fear, identifying opportunity where others see crisis, is what distinguishes communities that thrive in times of change and upheaval from those that stagnate and go into decline. Those of us who support New Roots, and who have invested time, energy, and money in this effort, have little doubt that it embodies both hope and opportunity, and that now more than ever it can help provide solutions that will ensure a prosperous and secure future.

Note: This essay was originally published in a slightly different form as “Students Will Benefit from New Roots,” Ithaca Journal, January 26, 2009.

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