Since the spring, Jericsson Pichardo ’15 and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Joel Helfrich have worked on a project to help the nearby Rochester City School District (RCSD) open a new public school, the Rochester River School. Its curriculum will draw from that being developed by the Institute for Humane Education for schools it plans to open in New York City in two years, as well as the best practices of Pichardo’s alma mater, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School in New York City. On Thursday, Nov. 20, Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, will discuss the concept of humane education in Rochester with members of the Rochester Teachers Association. During the event, Helfrich and Pichardo will announce their plans to open the Rochester River School in the fall of 2016.
Weil will talk about humane education with Evan Dawson, host of WXXI’s “Connections with Evan Dawson,” in an episode that will air Tuesday, Nov. 25 at noon. Helfrich and Pichardo will be on air with Dawson to discuss their project live on December 12 at noon. The show can be heard live on WEOS 89.5 FM and 90.3 FM, as well as online.
“The principles of humane education, with its focus on environmental and animal protection, human rights, and cultural concerns, best encourages students to be informed, informative and positive contributors to our larger society,” explains Helfrich, who adds the new school “would look to make the best use of Rochester’s natural and human built environments, while preparing students for a present and future world of resource scarcity, continued global climate change, and ongoing dialogue, discussion, and debate regarding environmental issues.”
The impetus for the new school was a casual conversation. Last year, Pichardo told Helfrich about his high school, the Harbor School, because he thought his professor might be interested in its unique design as a public school that combines Regents-based core courses with career and technical education courses in environmental and maritime disciplines. Following the conversation, Helfrich asked Pichardo if he’d like to try to establish a school based on its model in Rochester and, while unsure how or where to start, Pichardo jumped at the chance.
“I saw the impact the Harbor School had on city kids – the place I come from in Brooklyn is mostly African American and Latino students who struggled to go to college,” explains Pichardo. “The project-based learning allowed us to finish high school. What I gained from that experience is an opportunity I think everyone should have.”
A native of the Dominican Republic, Pichardo arrived to the United States in 2003. When the time came to apply to high school, students were asked to rank their preferences. He and his parents did not speak English and were unaware of what the best school options were so he listed four schools and received his last choice.
“Luckily enough, it was the school that was going to change my life in a positive way,” he says.
There, he learned the history of New York City’s waterways, and how to test the quality of the water by measuring its temperature, pH, salinity, oxygen levels and turbidity. He also acquired skills that would benefit him in the future, including rowing, community service, sailing and boating.
“These skills not only prepared me for my first year of high school, but also for the rest of my high school and college career, because I became aware and appreciative of the environment in which I lived,” says Pichardo, who is now an environmental studies major with minors in education, Latin American studies and biology.
He notes the classes also prepared students for careers right out of high school. Some of the projects in which he was involved included building boats in the marine technology class, helping develop an oyster restoration project (now called the Billion Oyster Project), and scuba diving with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Florida. Through the Harbor School, Pichardo was able to travel to the Bahamas and Bonaire to obtain seven scuba diving certifications, including rescue diver and scientific diver.
“I know that with this type of learning, students will be engaged in their community, will learn, and will become better human beings,” says Pichardo. “Rochester is the ideal city for this project because the education system there needs something different- something that would decrease the crime and dropout rates in the community.”
In working to establish the Rochester River School over the past several months, Pichardo and Helfrich have spoken and met with RCSD teachers, administrators, parents, committee members and people involved with charter schools in Rochester. They gained support from the Rochester Teachers Union, as well as a number of individuals and corporations in the area.
The new school would have a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum that teaches on-water job skills and environmental stewardship by utilizing Rochester’s natural features, especially its waterways. The Genesee River and Lake Ontario, as well as the City of Rochester, Erie Canal, and Finger Lakes, will be the classroom for much of each week. Students would also work on projects such as the boat building and oyster restoration projects Pichardo completed, but centered on Rochester and upstate New York. For instance, restoring the nine-spotted ladybug to New York could serve as the regional equivalent of the Billion Oyster Project. In addition to environmental projects, students will learn to take an active role in the community through service learning activities and participation in community driven projects.
Pichardo and Helfrich anticipate the proposed Rochester River School could enroll its first class of fifth graders in the fall of 2016. The school would start as a fifth-grade only institution, then add a grade each subsequent year until it is fully enrolled through 12th grade.
After graduating from Hobart, Pichardo plans to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental education. His thesis, he says, will focus on the process of creating a school with the unique curriculum of the Rochester River School. In the meantime, he would like to stay involved with the school as long as possible, then expand that model throughout New York State.
“I care a lot about the community I’m working for. Creating something like the Rochester River School for them would be like Christmas every single day for me,” he says. “Being able to eventually expand that model to other cities would be even better.”