Every February, the Ithaca Loves Teachers celebration puts a spotlight on educators, lavishing us with gifts, experiences, and discounts that help us pamper ourselves during this mid-winter interlude.

At New Roots Charter School, the love of teachers is at the heart of what we do and who we are every day. A teacher-led organization, we are an innovative learning environment designed by teachers, made possible by a teacher-inspired law creating space in public education for teacher innovation and leadership, and authorized by an institution that values the insights and perspectives of teachers so much that a teacher was named to its executive leadership position.

A teacher for nearly 20 years before founding New Roots, I was motivated by my early classroom experiences with young people, and my deep dive into understanding the history and philosophies of education while earning my masters degrees at Binghamton University. I saw the transformative impact of the student-centered classroom that emphasized meaningful projects, interdisciplinary connections, and respect for the individual’s passions and interests. I understood that the educational system that I had experienced had been developed with particular social and economic goals and philosophies in mind, the goals of a corporate, industrial age 100 years prior still encoded in our public school system.

As a parent, I was also well aware that we were entering another era entirely, one characterized by rapid change and problems beyond the scope of anything humans had seen before. I knew that the young people who experienced a truly child-centered education were far better prepared to be the innovators and solutionaries of this new era. How could I draw on my insights in the classroom to contribute to a necessary new future for education, a public school that would educate a new generation of leaders for a just and sustainable future? I came to Ithaca in 2002, seeking a community of people who wanted to find answers to these and other questions that were the catalyst for the development of a brand new field, education for sustainability. I met kindred educators Jason Hamilton and Peter Bardaglio and other teachers and parents who were drawn to the idea of creating a living laboratory to put time-tested theories into practice, in service of our youth and the future of public education.

The Charter Schools Act was inspired by the idea that teachers should have the opportunity to take leadership in redesigning public education. Attending the first-ever conference of the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools, New Roots trustee Peter Bardaglio, teacher Audrey Southern and I heard the people who authored the first charter schools act in Minnesota in 1991 speak about their inspiration. It was simple: to create spaces in public education for teachers to do good things for their students.

Large public school systems are not, by design, for or about teacher leadership or agency. In these top-down organizations, teachers are trained, observed, measured, certified, and expected to adapt endlessly to whatever orders come from the top, regardless of their own insights, knowledge, and experience with students. They enter the profession and train for years for a job that offers sub-level pay and little of the autonomy afforded to other professional people.

Motivated by their interest in nurturing a new generation, teachers work under relentlessly stressful conditions, in which they cannot conceivably accomplish all they want and need to do to serve their students well during their paid work day. They face public perception that does not understand the incredible array of professional competencies required to do the job well, work that can easily consume 10-12 hours per day and time on weekends, only to be derided because they have “so much vacation time.” Despite all of this, teachers keep teaching, for love of their students and the endeavor of teaching.

Our School Leadership Team at New Roots is comprised of six members, four current teacher leaders (Danielle Angie, Tanya Kingsley, Sue Schwartz, and David Streib), one former teacher (me!), and our dean of students (Jhakeem Haltom), a social worker by training who has formal as well as informal teaching experience. We make decisions about how to lead our school program together using dynamic governance, a consent-based decision-making process that gives all an equal voice and equal power. Together, we moved quickly to create a hybrid design that has served students and teachers well during this era of COVID. Together, we draw on the wisdom and insights of a decade-long experience of teachers “growing New Roots.” We have had some serious growing pains, but the learning process, painful at times, has been a transformative one.

As we have faced the challenges of redesigning our school for a global pandemic, another teacher leader has been an important source of inspiration: Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the Charter Schools Institute. Early in our history, Susie visited New Roots in person. I recognized her as a fellow teacher from her genuine interest, her presence, when talking with students. Since the very start of the pandemic, the inspiration of Susie’s regular reflections has sustained me, descriptions of our shared experience, recognizing and celebrating the teachers whose daily efforts to engage and educate young people are nothing less than heroic. (I love that she refers to all of the young people enrolled in SUNY-authorized charter schools across the state as “our students” — now that’s a teacher talking!). From the vantage point of our tiny charter outpost here in Ithaca, Susie’s teacher leadership has given us all a lens on the ways in which we, in these times, are part of something much bigger than ourselves: a charter school movement of educators alike at the heart of it all despite our apparent differences, alike in our fierce commitment to ensuring that each and every one of the precious young people learning in our schools taps into their vast potential and achieves a life of passion and purpose.

Seeing this teacher-leader in action has strengthened and renewed my faith that we are part of a movement committed to reaching the young people who most need the opportunity afforded by quality charter schools. Over the years, I have come to understand anti-charter sentiments are ultimately anti-teacher, in the guise of being anti-corporate. “What do you know about running a school?” was the derisive question directed at me and at our educator-board members Jason Hamilton and Peter Bardaglio by a vociferous anti-charter activist at an early public hearing.

As it turns out, teachers know plenty about how to run a school, and they are very well equipped to learn more of what they need to know along the way. According to the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools, fully two thirds of all public charter schools are, like New Roots, “mom and pop” charters that are independent, mission-driven organizations. The existence of those very few profit-seeking corporations who successfully hijack charters for their own purposes serve as a convenient smoke screen for those that seek to shut down these precious enclaves that serve as living laboratories for innovation in public education, an opportunity for true teacher leadership, a vision of what might inspire systems-wide transformation.

Now well into my second decade as teacher-leader of New Roots Charter School, I am making space for Growing (My) New Roots as a way to celebrate the history and accomplishments of the teachers who have made this school such a powerful and precious enclave in public education in our region. I hoped to create space in public education for young people to experience what I saw in my classroom during my Susquehanna School years, but also to create a space for teachers to experience that same respect. This is the story of my journey, and those who have inspired and traveled with me.

Love teachers, love your local teacher-led charter school! We are blessed to have the opportunity to create this innovative and transformative learning experience for young people in our region.

With gratitude,

Tina

Tina Nilsen-Hodges

Founder, Principal and Superintendent (Lead Teacher!)

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