- By Sherrie Negrea
- Around Town
An anonymous donor has pledged $200,000 to New Roots Charter School to help it address the fiscal and enrollment issues that led the SUNY Board of Trustees Charter Schools Committee to place the high school on probation in December. News of the school's financial status has inspired an outpouring of community support, including the pledge of the local anonymous donor that will support school operations through the 2020-2021 school year.
"This incredible, inspiring and unexpected gift was made by a donor who wants our school to thrive as a resource to young people and our community," said Tina Nilsen-Hodges, principal and superintendent. "We are deeply grateful for this breathtaking act of philanthropy."
Leaders of New Roots said the school will contribute $80,000 during this school year to begin paying down the debt it owes to the New York State Teachers' Retirement System due to cash flow issues. The school will pay the remainder of its debt to the retirement system over the next two years.
In the meantime, the tuition-free, public high school is launching an outreach plan to boost enrollment after a smaller than average number of students enrolled at the school last fall. This winter, New Roots leaders will begin holding a series of community meetings in towns across Tompkins County to highlight the school's academic programs.
"We have a solid plan and every reason to feel confident, based on over a decade's worth of experience," Nilsen-Hodges said. "Being in this school every day and seeing the good work of the teachers and the students and the energy and excitement — all of that is such an inspiration and we want to share it with our wider community."
On Wednesday, New Roots leaders met with Jon Thatcher, director of schools and community engagement at the New York Charter Schools Association, which is based in Albany. Thatcher visited the school at the Clinton House and reviewed the recruitment plan, which New Roots will submit to SUNY for review next week.
"This plan integrates best practices being used by charter schools throughout upstate New York," Thatcher said. "The school enrolled 60 freshmen in its first year. By returning to successful past practices, I am confident that the school will build its enrollment."
New Roots officials attributed the lower enrollment this year to factors such as an historically small freshman class, a smaller senior class, and the impact of the New York State vaccination law. The 2019 law, which ended religious exemptions for vaccinations, led a handful of parents to withdraw their children from New Roots and homeschool them.
Leaders of New Roots submitted its annual financial audit by the January 1 deadline, and the school has also hired a Rochester accountant who specializes in charter schools to review its finances. In addition, New Roots has prepared a balanced budget for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year based on current enrollment.
"SUNY is monitoring the school's health and well-being during this period of fiscal challenge resulting from unusually low enrollment and unexpected cash-flow issues," said Jason Hamilton, chair of the New Roots Charter School Board of Trustees. "The plan will provide our students and families with the assurance that New Roots is doing what is necessary to sustain our school, and that we have a solid plan to grow our school's enrollment and resources in 2020-21."
As New Roots officials hold information sessions throughout the county, they plan to emphasize the mission of the charter school and focus on its commitment to integrate environmental stewardship and sustainability into its curriculum.
In 2019, the school was recognized with a "Best of Green Schools" Award in the transformation category by the Green Schools National Network. The group cited the New Roots' Cayuga Wetlands Restoration Project, a four-year program funded by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that has become part of the science curriculum and provides summer employment for young people who learn environmental restoration skills. The project supports the DEC's strategic plan to improve water quality in New York State.
"A growing number of people are interested in the health of Cayuga Lake and our natural environment, and we hope to tap into this interest more effectively this spring," said Jhakeem Haltom, the school's dean of students. DEC staff will be visiting the school on January 28 to share information with students about careers in the environmental sector.
New Roots also offers two community-based programs open to students in the Finger Lakes region — the Youth Entrepreneurship Market (YEM); and Rootstock, a youth music celebration the school co-sponsors with Grassroots.
YEM inspires entrepreneurial thinking through hands on learning and connections to community, helping students realize the power of their voices and their ideas. The program culminates in an outdoor market for youth vendors held each May in downtown Ithaca. Rootstock and the YEM market will take place on May 16, 2020 this year on the Ithaca Commons.
"Creating community is a fundamental aspect of sustainability education at New Roots," said Michael Mazza, Director of Community Engagement. "New Roots creates opportunities for young people to actively participate in making their community a better place to live. This is unique and invaluable preparation for life after high school."