New Roots Class of 2013: This Is What An Education for Sustainability Looks Like

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 2/11/2013

by Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis

The New Roots Charter School Class of 2013 is made up of diverse and talented young people from twelve regional school districts: Ithaca, Trumansburg, Dryden, Candor, Odessa-Montour, Spencer-Van Etten, Binghamton, Newfield, Moravia, Southern Cayuga, South Seneca and Cortland.

Opening its doors for the first time in downtown Ithaca in Fall 2009, New Roots welcomed a pioneering group of 9th and 10th grade students to engage in a bold new approach to education. Those trail-blazing freshman from our first year are now seniors getting ready to graduate, enroll in the colleges of their choice and sow the seeds of their New Roots education as adults. New Roots students have the opportunity to not only meet all NY State Learning Standards and prepare for college, but to experience a personalized, place-based education that integrates best practices in education for sustainability and social justice. The Class of 2013 has experienced four years of sustainability-oriented themes woven into the curriculum including community-based learning “expeditions,” project-based and service learning, internships, frequent participatory assemblies, guest speakers and more.

The outcomes of an education for sustainability are demonstrated at New Roots in senior team capstone projects, where students’ capacity to recognize and analyze systems, identify key issues, and think like entrepreneurs in identifying and acting on solutions are put to the test.  This culminating project requires students to identify an issue that impacts community sustainability, develop a policy to address the issue, and take action to implement it.  Success on this project also requires students to be able to work with a team, identifying each team member’s strengths and areas of greatest contribution, and coordinate their efforts in moving a complex project forward.

This year, New Roots seniors are tackling local issues as diverse as litter on downtown streets, closing the achievement gap for low-income students, and refining existing school initiatives such as our scholarship, service-learning and Farm-to-School programs.

One ambitious group of seniors has identified what Senior Year Program Coordinator Peter McWain describes as the “disconnect between what we teach in society and what society values and will pay for. These students are recognizing that upstream thinking is needed to change NY State K-12 curriculum to reflect skills instead of content and are actively pursuing policy change in this arena.”

Senior Ethan Schwed’s capstone project involves researching strategies to address the impact of the overpopulation of white-tailed deer in the Town of Ithaca. Schwed, one of the original New Roots pioneers from 2009, defines sustainability as, “the ability to meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations.” In describing the process of working on his capstone project, Schwed said, “We had to apply many of the skills we’ve learned throughout our New Roots career like critical thinking, problem solving, time management, teamwork and public speaking to achieve our goals. We’ve come to an identity as people who are creating change now as positively contributing community members.”

The Public Policy course that all New Roots seniors take is offered through the Maxwell School at Syracuse University by a New Roots faculty member, and all seniors have the option of earning credit for the course. William Coplin, Professor and Director of the Public Affairs Program at the Maxwell School has interacted with New Rots seniors, and says, “I am impressed by the students’ knowledge and passion for making a more sustainable planet. This course serves as a great capstone experience for students, and I am sure will help them perform their civic duty to promote improved conditions in their community and throughout the world.”

In the words of New Roots Principal and Founder Tina Nilsen-Hodges, “Our capstone project is a graduation requirement that truly puts everything our students have learned to the test, and I’m thrilled to see that the Class of 2013 is passing with flying colors! In our fourth year, our students are demonstrating not only the skills of critical thinking, teamwork and problem-solving, they are closing the achievement gap. New Roots has a greater proportion of students from low-income households, yet 100% of the students in the Class of 2012 achieved college acceptance. This same cohort outperformed local school districts, including the Ithaca City School District, on Regents exam passing rates. We are seeing similarly promising results from the Class of 2013. Our students are demonstrating that it is possible to excel both in meeting NY State standards and best practices in education for sustainability, as defined by national leaders in this field.”

New Roots Charter School has been named the “Top Green High School” by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, honored with several “Sign of Sustainability Awards” and regularly hosts teachers, administrators, and students from throughout the state who want to learn more about our unique and powerful approach to education.

New Roots Charter School is enrolling now for the 2013-14 school year. For more information, call 607-882-9220 or visit

Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis, LMSW, is the Director of Community Programs at New Roots Charter School.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles