New Roots Education Grounded in Sustainable Thought

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Tompkins Weekly     2-13-17

By Tina Nilsen-Hodges

A horticulture major and women’s rugby team player on the Dean’s List at Cornell. A female diesel mechanic. An Evergreen College student and future teacher studying child labor laws in Nepal. A photographer who shoots equestrian sports. An inspired local cook with a passion for farm-to-table food. A computer scientist who chose a small college with an innovative, project-based curriculum. An award-winning barista who aspires to run her own shop. A student at the nation’s top entrepreneurial college invited to direct a play by the college’s theater department. A doctoral student in Earth Systems Science studying mathematical modeling and climate change. A horse trainer with a BA in Animal Science. A slam poet on scholarship studying sociology.

What do these young people have in common? They are graduates of New Roots Charter School – and their lives are signs of justice and sustainability for our community and the wider world. Ithaca’s grassroots regional public high school, New Roots is a national leader in a growing movement to “teach justice and sustainability” in ways that have powerful and practical benefits for youth who want lives of passion, purpose, and economic security in increasingly uncertain times.

New Roots was recently chosen to participate in Teaching Our Cities, a project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency that brings together six urban environmental public high schools across the Northeast for a year-long collaboration – to build our capacity to mobilize the urban environment as a learning laboratory, create urban public schools responsive to our cities, and grow a new, diverse, powerful generation of environmental and community leaders.

The New Roots Teaching Our Cities team will document and share best practices via digital media, including the Cayuga Wetlands Restoration Project, an interdisciplinary project addressing water quality in Cayuga Lake, and Sense of Place, a field-based study of the human institutions and natural places in our region. We will also develop a yearlong freshman learning expedition inspired by the “solar punk” movement, which envisions a sustainable future when the relationship between people and nature is restored, and technology serves people and planet.

In our new “Solar Punk Ithaca” project, students will use traditional academic disciplines and field experiences to learn about the interaction of human and natural systems that created the landscape and cultural institutions of the Ithaca region as we know them today, project possible impacts of global climate change and fossil fuel depletion, and express their vision of a “solar punk” future through literature and the arts. This foundational experience will prepare students to identify and take action on real community issues in internships and capstone projects in their second half of high school.

The Cayuga Wetlands Restoration Project is a great example of the type of project our juniors and seniors have developed to take action on a local sustainability issue. Conducting water quality studies at Stewart Park, Contemporary Science and Technology students discovered pollution impacting wildlife habitat and recreational use. Identifying root causes, they sought solutions using indigenous ecological knowledge and scientific understanding in concert to restore balance in natural systems disrupted by 20th century industry and commerce.

Students leading capstone and honors projects petitioned the Department of Public Works to plant three native wetland species on a 50-feet by 50-feet plot, citing the successful use of traditional ecological knowledge to restore nearby Onondaga Lake, and the Arcata Marsh wastewater treatment project in California. Buoyed up by the enthusiastic support of city officials, they set about designing experiments, researching and procuring native plants, applying for grants, and rolling up their sleeves – and their pant legs – to wade into the muck in service to their vision.

The first phase of their bioremediation project established a demonstration plot to show how a wetland can serve as a protective buffer between human activity and the lake. In May 2016, an enthusiastic team procured plants and established the plot during an Intensives Week course. This plot will be used for ongoing scientific research conducted by students, as well as for community education and outreach projects.

New Roots AP Global Environmental Science students will be hosting an Environmental Science Symposium on Saturday, February 25, inviting representatives of organizations from our region that study and protect the health of Cayuga Lake. Students involved in the Cayuga Wetlands Project since its inception will present their research, hear local experts discuss their recent initiatives, and discuss further ways to collaborate to protect and restore Cayuga Lake.

The education of our region’s young people will shape the future of our small city as we face the impacts of global climate change, a shifting energy landscape, and national politics and policies. New Roots prepares them to face this future with informed optimism, an entrepreneurial spirit, and the ability to collaborate with people from all walks of life.

Tina Nilsen-Hodges is the founder and principal of New Roots Charter School.

Photo provided: New Roots students harvesting native plants for the Cayuga Wetlands Restoration Project in May 2016

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