New Roots announces $200,000 gift, plans for 2020

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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, according to a recent press release.

“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, in the release. “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 Jan. 8, 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 in a recent press release. “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.

Nilsen-Hodges said other possible factors that contributed to under-enrollment are the elimination of an administrative position to increase teacher salaries and an increase in openings at nearby Lehman Alternative Community School.

“As a school of choice, there are various reasons that students choose to enroll and unenroll in our school on an annual basis,” Nilsen-Hodges said.

Michael Mazza, New Roots director of community engagement, said the school is on track to meet the remaining deadlines set by the remedial plan agreed upon in December of 2019.

Leaders of New Roots submitted its annual financial audit by the Jan. 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.

“Our Success Strategy for 2020 includes a variety of grassroots approaches to enrollment and fundraising, similar to the approach we took in 2009 when we launched the school,” Mazza said. “We have vetted our strategy with several seasoned charter school advocates who have confirmed that our plan contains all of the right elements for success. Beyond enrollment and fundraising, we’re required to submit routine monthly reports to our authorizer, updating them on our enrollment and financial status.”

Nilsen-Hodges said the biggest challenge in trying to address the school’s probationary status and low enrollment will be public perception due to New Roots being a school of choice.

“If students choose to attend New Roots, the school will continue to thrive – it’s that simple,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “Since we announced our intention to open a charter school in downtown Ithaca in 2009, we have received a lot of support and a lot of resistance.”

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