Beyond “Green Schools”: Education for a Sustainable 21st Century

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Tompkins Weekly 1-27-14

By Rebecca Cutter

Today’s high school looks a lot like the high school of 100 years ago: classrooms with desks in rows, frequent changes at the sound of a bell.

New Roots Charter School is a public high school chartered by the State University of New York to create a “living laboratory” of secondary education that prepares young people for a new era.  Awarded the honor of “Top Green High School in New York” in 2011, New Roots goes beyond “green” — often associated with practices such as recycling, composting, and energy efficiency — to tackle the big question: how do we prepare young people to take on the looming challenges of the 21st century?

“Climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and changes in our global economy require that we change the way we think about education,” says Dr. Jason Hamilton, Chairman of the New Roots Board of Trustees. “Young people will need different knowledge, skills, and capabilities than their parents and grandparents to survive and thrive in the 21st century.”

Developing students’ capacity as leaders and innovators, New Roots’ college-preparatory program features a four-year required sequence in all core academic subjects with an interdisciplinary, real-world focus that gets students out of the classroom and into the community for service and fieldwork projects.

One interdisciplinary theme is that people, their cultures, and their economies are dependent upon and impact natural systems. David Streib’s Natural Resources “learning expedition” examined sustainable approaches to agriculture via research that included visits to field sites like the Cornell Permaculture Plot. One system they explored was the symbiotic relationship between the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. Understanding complex relationships in nature and society help students think critically and develop the systems thinking skills they need to fully understand and assess emerging problems and opportunities.

Teaching academic skills alone, however, is not enough. To be competitive in the college and work place, students need interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, management skills, event or campaign planning skills, communication skills and the capacity to work productively as part of a team and independently. They need to be innovative, creative thinkers with the ability to network and build relationships: they need to think like entrepreneurs. This year New Roots has launched a certificate program in Sustainable Entrepreneurship featuring a “learning expedition” that teaches fundamental skills necessary to start a new enterprise, and an internship with a local start-up business in a sustainability-related field. Other certificates and learning expeditions focus on topics such as Sustainable Agriculture.

Developing community leadership skills is another critical program element. In their senior year, students work in teams to identify a community issue and develop and implement an action plan. One current issue students are working on in collaboration with the Tompkins County Department of Health is passing legislation to raise the age to purchase cigarettes in Tompkins County to 19 as a way of addressing downtown smoking issues that impact our Westside neighborhood.

Through projects like these, New Roots students become part of the larger community, learning from professionals and community leaders and making a real contribution in return. They take advantage of resources from the Tompkins Public Library, Cornell, TC3, Ithaca College, The History Center, GIAC and Southside Community Center, not to mention over 35 local businesses and organizations that host students in internships and service learning opportunities.

For instance, English classes are helping recent immigrants build language skills at the BOCES English as a Second Language Program. In the spring, students in Sue Schwartz’s English class will interview refugees, transcribe the interviews, then work with Ithaca College Theatre students to incorporate the transcribed interviews into an original readers theatre production.

Another critical aspect of education for sustainability, New Roots style, is a focus on developing the unique talents and capacities of the individual within a diverse and supportive community. Students create “visions” of their futures and a plan to reach their goals in an advisory class called “crew”. “So many young people just can’t see the connection between where they want to be in a decade and what they are doing in school day to day,” said school counselor Bryan Poole-diSalvo. “New Roots supports them in mapping out how to get from here to there.”

New Roots is one of many global initiatives inspired by the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) to integrate the principles, values and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education to create a more sustainable future in terms of environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society for present and future generations.  To read more about what this looks like in the day-to-day life of our students, please visit our Principal’s blog at or join us for a panel discussion featuring trustees, teachers, alumni, and current students at the Sustainability Center in late February.

Rebecca Cutter is community outreach coordinator at New Roots Charter School.

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