October 18, 2021

Three months before opening, Truxton Academy has a lot to do

Photos by Michael McCleary/contributing photographer

Truxton Academy Head of School Sara Petit-McClure demonstrates how students will grow their own plants in the classroom.

Sara Petit-McClure has taken a lot of people on tours.

The new head of school for Truxton Academy, a new charter school taking the vacant space left by Harnett Elementary school in Homer, has run open houses, met with parents and students. She doesn’t officially start working full-time until July, but the enrollment application has been open since February. The school needs students to enroll.

On each tour, Petit-McClure walked down the hallway, past the unfinished walls, the deskless classrooms, the incomplete bannisters and tried to sell visitors on what the school could be.

“I could show you the classrooms we’re going to use, and you could see that they don’t yet look like classrooms,” Petit-McClure said.

Three months before its intended opening this fall, Truxton Academy has the remnants of what was once a school, but is balancing solely on what school administrators believe to be a strong starting foundation. The school has a plan – one to offer students in rural Truxton a local, yet nontraditional learning experience that is expected to draw students from across the greater Cortland County area.

Its essence is a hands-on approach to learning and involvement with a student’s family: school administrators plan in-house meetings with the families of all enrolled students and preach communication in and out of the classroom.

But until enrollment is finished and the school meets all of the standards required by the SUNY Charter’s Institute, which approved the school’s charter, and the New York State Department of Education, none of it can crystallize.

“Once a charter is issued, schools have a significant amount of work to do before they open their doors to serve students,” said Kathryn Conell-Espinosa, chief of staff at the SUNY Charters Institute.

A big idea

When the Homer Central School District voted to close Harnett Elementary school in 2014, Patty Dawson’s daughter was set to start kindergarten at the school.

Beyond paying to send students to receive a private education, there were few options. A public charter was discussed as an option and a group that would become the founding board members of Truxton Academy bought the school when it went to auction for $51,000.

When the school began accepting applications in February, educators wanted to make students aware of the area, go outside and apply their skills. With the help of SUNY Cortland Professor Beth Klein and Syracuse University Professor John Tillotson, the board of the school developed a curriculum predicated on science yet connected to the surrounding area through agriculture.

“What they tell you about is not the everyday thing where they’re sitting and doing worksheets,” Petit-McClure said. “What they tell you about is the project they got to do that one time a week for however long.”

But the nontraditional aspects of the school was met with opposition for the funds it could take away from the district’s schools. The school, though it gives admissions priority to students within the Homer school district, is not confined to district lines and can draw students from numerous areas. State and federal funding for education is allocated according to enrollment, so though the districts act as a passthrough for a portion of it, Petit-McClure said, the districts must send funding to Truxton to accompany students coming from their district.

“Everybody’s worried about their budget. Budget’s a big deal, especially out here,” Dawson said. “… The reality is, the money follows the student. The money is put in place for children to be educated the best way for them.”

To meet the standards and exceed expectations, Dawson said Truxton needed to prove themselves doubly: that they are extra options for students who need them. That they will meet the standards of education for students, and provide even more.

Making a school

Kathie Arnold pushed open the main entrance double door and cracked a grin.

“Are you here for the flooring?” she asked.

Arnold is on the board of Truxton Alumni and Community Supporters, a non-profit who manages the community center, from whom the school is renting space in the building, Petit-McClure said. Monday, the job was to map out a plan to replace shattered tiles in the first classroom of the building.

A classroom in Truxton Academy. The room will be converted into a Nurse’s office when the school opens in the fall.

The building’s still a work in progress: Just last week a sink sat in the main office, creating a tight space walking around the room. That was removed and the drywall was coated in green paint. A fire code safety team determined the school’s bannisters need to be extended, bathroom stalls need to be widened for accessibility and the classrooms have blackboards, but no desks.

In the roughly 10 weeks before the school opens its doors, which Petit-McClure and Dawson said it is on track for, it has to convert all the classrooms, bring in all the necessary supplies and furniture and recraft parts of the school to maintain safety standards.

The school has 45 students fully enrolled, Dawson said. If the school gets its projected 50 to 60 students, they would be separated into three classes. The school plans to hire three full-time classroom teachers, a part-time physical education teacher and a part-time Spanish teacher in its first year.

An art and music teacher would be hired as the school grows, two programs that are not required by New York state, but the school wants to add to the curriculum.

Checklists and visits

To compensate for the lack of programming, the school could put state grants that they received when they first were approved as a charter toward training classroom teachers to incorporate art and music into their lesson plans. The school will also have one custodial worker and one cafeteria worker, both part-time, and one full-time administrative assistant.

The school cannot use a charter program grant to fund teacher salaries, but will instead use the $800,000 Charter Schools Program Planning and Implementation grant to buy books, technology, classroom supplies and furniture. The school will be tuition-free, and as a certified non-profit, the school can run fundraisers to raise additional money.

To keep track of the progress, Truxton must complete a Prior Actions checklist issued by the SUNY Charter School Institute that includes a list of seven pre-visit documents and six sets of facilities standards.

Truxton scheduled a visit from the institute for August to examine the school and approve the opening. In the meantime, Conell-Espinosa said the institute maintains constant contact with Truxton.

“The Prior Actions process helps institute staff verify the new school is prepared to serve students and meets facilities requirements, as defined by state and/or federal law and SUNY policy, and determine whether the school may open as scheduled,” Conell-Espinosa said in an email. “If a school has completed all or substantially all of the Prior Actions and presents no student safety or security issues, the institute will find the school may open (even though all of the Prior Actions are not complete).”

Fish in the classroom

Beyond the basic steps, the school partnered with SUNY Morrisville for a trout-in-the-classroom project where students can hatch trout eggs, intends to build a high tunnel to allow for three-season growing of various crops <$>and is seeking approval to become its own certified food provider to give students locally sourced products.

New Roots, a charter school in Ithaca, has found success in a similar, yet not quite as rural, setting with its Farm to School program.

But before it could get to that, Truxton has to make its school. After nearly two hours, Dawson and Petit-McClure strolled down the still-dark hallways of Truxton Academy and entered a classroom where cracks lined the white tiled floor.

They know their school isn’t for everyone. In fact, Petit-McClure has cherished the feedback from parents who understand that one of their children might succeed at the school more than another. But they believe their town, with a gas station centrally located, and not much else, needs it. Dawson and Petit-McClure bent down, mapped out the floor in the classroom and got to work.