Ridge and Valley Charter School Earns 3rd Renewal from NJ Dept of Ed as “Innovative Public Charter School”
The New Jersey Department of Education approved the Ridge and Valley Charter School on January 12 for an additional five years of student instruction, certifying the K-8 Warren County school for operation through 2023.
“We are very happy that the State has recognized the high-quality educational experiences that we provide for our students and families,” said RVCS Trustee and co-coordinator for State relations, Jessi Sohl, whose two sons attend the school. “This is a very special school that families love and that has continuously improved its program since our opening in 2004.”
As one of the original charter schools in New Jersey, RVCS emphasizes student-centered curriculum, personal excellence, hands-on experiential education, ecological sustainability, earth literacy, bioregional studies, self-directed study and outdoor learning.
“RVCS is an amazing school for my children and all children; they can’t wait to go to school everyday,” said Cindy Calvano, mother of three students at RVCS. “We moved to this area in large part because of the school. We couldn’t be happier.”
RVCS, which is located on Route 94 in Frelinghuysen, is open to any New Jersey child in the Kindergarten through 8th grade age range and currently enrolls approximately 127 students from more than 30 districts and towns across Northwest New Jersey.
About the New Jersey Charter School Renewal Process
The extensive renewal process included in-depth analysis of the school’s academic, financial, governance and mission components, as well as a day-long visit to the school by senior officials from the NJ DOE. The official renewal decision confirmed that RVCS meets or exceeds all criteria and standards.
RVCS Trustee and state relations co-coordinator Steve Andrasek, whose daughter attends the school, said the school led the way in its early years with foundation principles about how children learn best that are now recognized and proven to be effective in major studies and as implemented in many traditional schools across the country.
“Our students and families have always known that RVCS is an excellent school with many innovative, effective and engaging qualities,” said Andrasek. “It’s quite gratifying now that the State by this action has endorsed our educational philosophy and all the hard work and passion that our talented and dedicated staff bring to our students every day.”
A Brief History of Ridge and Valley Charter School
RVCS opened in the Fall of 2004, when only a handful of charters schools were operating. Since the first charters opened 20 years ago, the charter school sector has grown to serve approximately 50,000 students in 89 schools across every region of the state. Originally established as an incubator program for innovative educational strategies, charter schools in New Jersey have shifted somewhat to also provide quality education in under-performing districts.
In late 2017, Ridge and Valley Charter School was one of just four charter schools out of 89 in the state of New Jersey to be featured in the New Jersey Charter School Association’s “20 Years of New Jersey Charter Schools: A State of the Sector Report” under the “Innovation Stories” section. The school was highlighted as a “high-performing charter school” with a “unique school model.” The report features an overview of Ridge and Valley Charter School’s ecological and sustainability mission, coupled with its rigorous expeditionary curriculum, non-traditional structures and school-wide sustainability initiatives. The report concludes that “Ridge and Valley is an innovative school that truly embodies its unique mission – providing students with a high-quality education for a hopeful, sustainable future.”
Learn more about Ridge and Valley Charter School’s student-centered curriculum.
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By Maggie Vetter
It all begins throughout the years students spend in the gardens, orchard, greenhouse, and kitchens at Ridge and Valley Charter School. In seventh grade, the idea of leaving this beautiful place that feels like home is looming on the horizon. Many feelings of gratitude flood, as does a desire to say thank you.
During the fall of seventh grade, just after Thanksgiving, students receive the bountiful harvest of tomatoes that were harvested by the 8th-grade class. These tomatoes were grown and cared for by the 8th-grade class that has since graduated and left behind as a gift. These tomatoes are brought to a local restaurant, Buck Hill Brewery, that has kindly donated their time and kitchen space to the cause. The chef works closely with the students, teaching them little tricks of the trade as they chop, mill and cook. Every student takes part in the making of home-made, gourmet tomato soup. The story of where these tomatoes came and where they are going is shared with the students, and they await to play a new role in the circle of giving next year.
At the end of 7th grade, the graduating class invites the 7th graders to the passing of the seed ceremony. It is at this time that 8th graders host questions, play games, and pass on their gifts of gratitude before they journey on. Each 8th grader is paired with a 7th grader as they walk into the garden full of tomatoes that are grown from seeds passed down from year to year. At this time, they are still small and yet to fruit. However, there is one barren spot left for the passing of the seed ceremony. Each 8th grader has a handful of seeds and gives a pinch of seeds to a 7th grader. The 7th grader plants his or her seeds and the 8th grader throws the remainder of the handful into the nearby meadow, a gift of farewell to the community of beings.
At the beginning of 8th-grade students are overwhelmed with the plethora of tomatoes to harvest from our garden. Tomatoes are shared and eaten graciously with all as the work is performed. The graduate classroom in the fall is a never-ending cycle of tomato harvest and preserving through drying and canning into a sauce. One day deemed, “Tomato Madness”, students walk into the classroom after lunch to dramatic music and read off cards hung around the room that informs about the tomato seed saving process before they dive into the saving of the seeds.
Just after Thanksgiving, following the 7th graders’ soup making, 8th-grade students participate in preparing a meal that includes the tomato soup from their garden at a local soup kitchen, The Manna House in Newton, NJ. This experience is eye-opening and transformative for many of the students, as they are awakened to the needs of so many so close to home. The feeling of being grateful for what they have is the most commonly shared emotion after working in the soup kitchen. The people served at the kitchen are surprised to learn of where the soup has come, as well as pleased with the delicious treat. They do not hold back their words of gratitude to our students and the students relish in the awareness of what it feels like to help others.
It all began with the magic in a tiny seed. Through the winter 8th graders will begin to put the seeds they saved into trays to later be transplanted in the garden. The germination of the seeds is a miracle to behold. Students water and nurture these tiny seedlings until they are strong enough to live in our garden that they have weeded and prepared. Some students even take off their shoes as they work the soil to feel the earth beneath their feet, to feel close to that which gives life. It is an experience that bonds, to the earth, each other, and all that lives. All in all, it is a celebration of life.
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The New Jersey Charter School Association hosted their annual conference in Newark, NJ with a special focus on celebrating the 20 year anniversary of charter schools in New Jersey. Ridge and Valley Charter School was highlighted throughout the conference through inclusion in their slideshow as well as an invitation to participate on a panel of schools with sustainability as their focus (description below).
In addition, Dillon Uzar, a 2007 graduate of Ridge and Valley Charter School, was asked to give a speech as the “Alumni Representative” at the evening banquet of festivities. He proudly described how his education at Ridge and Valley Charter School shaped him as a person and helped him thrive academically. Dillon graduated as the valedictorian of his high school class, went on to graduate from Stevens Institute of Technology with high honors and most recently launched his own technology “startup” business. Watch Dillon’s speech here.
As one of the original charter schools in New Jersey, RVCS prides itself on innovation in education and fulfilling its mission of educating children for a hopeful sustainable future. The school’s curriculum honors children as individuals and emphasizes personal excellence, hands-on experiential education, self-directed and outdoor learning, project-based learning, earth literacy and bioregional studies.
Education for Sustainability Panel Description
New Jersey Charter School Association Conference, October 17, 2017
As educators—and the greater society—recognizing the environmental, economic, and social challenges that will be facing future generations, preparing children to address these issues in a well informed, skillful way becomes critical. Some schools have taken up this challenge by actively focusing their programs on diverse aspects of sustainability.
Steve King, founder and former leader of the Barack Obama Green Charter High School in Plainfield, will moderate a panel of school leaders from schools that have defined their missions in terms of a range of sustainability issues.
How does economic sustainability impact our efforts to achieve a sustainable environment? How do decisions about community development and social justice affect the long-term quality of life for urban, suburban, and rural families? What is happening in science, government, and the global economy that will impact the ability of future generations to thrive?
Join us for a lively, wide-ranging discussion of sustainability in the 21st century, and learn about what some charter schools are doing to prepare students to be engaged. Panelists include:
- Steven King, Founder, The Barack Obama Green Charter High School, Plainfield, NJ
- Frank Mentesana, Director, EcoSpaces Education, Newark, NJ
- Lisa Masi, Integration Guide, Ridge & Valley Charter School, Blairstown, NJ
- Traci Pannullo, Administrator, Ridge & Valley Charter School, Blairstown, NJ
- Connie Sanchez, Executive Director, Unity Charter School, Morristown, NJ
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Ridge and Valley Charter School was one of just four charter schools out of 89 in the state of New Jersey to be featured in the New Jersey Charter School Association’s “20 Years of New Jersey Charter Schools: A State of the Sector Report” under the “Innovation Stories” section. The school was highlighted as a “high-performing charter school” with a “unique school model.” The report features an overview of Ridge and Valley Charter School’s ecological and sustainability mission, coupled with its rigorous expeditionary curriculum, non-traditional structures and systems and schoolwide sustainability initiatives. The report concludes that “Ridge and Valley is an innovative school that truly embodies its unique mission – providing students with a high-quality education for a hopeful, sustainable future.”
The Charter School Movement in New Jersey
The State of the Sector Report provides a comprehensive overview of the charter school movement in New Jersey reporting that “since the first public charter schools opened in New Jersey 20 years ago, the charter school sector has grown to serve approximately 50,000 students in 89 schools across every region of the state. Charter schools are located in urban centers such as Newark, Camden, and Trenton as well as in rural parts of the state including Warren, Sussex, and Cumberland Counties. In fact, charter schools serve students in 40 different cities spanning 17 counties across the Garden State. Every child, regardless of where he or she lives, deserves access to a high-quality public school education. With more than 35,000 students on waitlists for access to a high-quality seat, New Jersey families are proving that public charter schools are a valued—and desired—option in the public education landscape.”
20 Years of New Jersey Charter Schools: A State of the Sector Report
The “20 Years of New Jersey Charter Schools: A State of the Sector Report” was researched and written to provide all stakeholders (parents and families, legislators, charter schools, partners, education organizations, etc.) with important information and facts about where they’ve been, where they are, and what the future holds for charter schools in New Jersey.
Follow the link below to learn more about the achievements of Ridge and Valley Charter School and other charter schools in the state of New Jersey.
New Jersey Charter School Association – 20 Years of New Jersey Charter Schools: A State of the Sector Report
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Ridge and Valley Charter School is based on the assumption that human beings are a thread in the miraculous web of life supported by a living universe and that we as humans have a profound responsibility to respect the Earth. The school’s primary focus and mission is centered on ecological literacy and sustainability. At Ridge and Valley the children learn to make choices in their lives that promote the long-term health of the planet and, therefore, themselves. Each child is cherished and respected, and their creativity is nurtured and supported.
The curriculum uses the universe and earth as the context for learning. Students are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, to challenge traditional assumptions and derive new models for honoring the world around them. The innovative, progressive program is highly experiential, allowing children to learn using project-based and hands-on experiences, often set out-of-doors in the local bioregion and within multi-aged groups. The expeditionary curriculum, offering ever-expanding regional experiences, increases in complexity across the grades and provides regular opportunities for in-the-field application of skills and knowledge. Using this experiential approach, the students meet and exceed the New Jersey Student Learning Standards set by the state Board of Education.
The school structure is student-centered with staff referred to as “Guides” rather than teachers. Beyond all mandated state tests, learner assessment primarily consists of projects, presentations, service learning, portfolios and rubrics, rather than traditional, one-dimensional paper and pencil formats. Feedback is provided to, and created by, the students in the form of holistic student self-reflections and Guide narratives. Additionally, Ridge and Valley collects non-traditional data on mission-specific goals such as self-directed learning, social-emotional learning and expeditionary skills.
The school founders and Trustees, a group of local parents embedded in the community with grassroots organizational backgrounds, are committed to a non-hierarchical governance structure. The school leaders are considered coordinators and work by consensus building and empowerment of staff talent. This perspective is mirrored in the children’s experience where relationship building is an integral part of the program, based in the school’s formal circle governance structures. The school encourages active participation of students and parents in shaping the educational experience and strives to build a stronger community both inside the school and beyond the school walls.
The mission is further modeled and expressed at the school facility through several sustainability principles and practices, including the use of previously used modular classrooms; installation of “green” carpets and linoleum floors; installation of full spectrum daylight lighting through a NJ Smart Start Buildings Grant through the NJ Clean Energy Program in 2008; solar panels for electricity production installed 2004; rain garden built in conjunction with Rutgers University in 2011 to mitigate stormwater runoff into local watersheds; rain barrels to capture roof water runoff installed in 2004; native species focus for landscaping; use of Integrated Pest Management principles; organic garden and orchard; classroom compost program; TerraCycle program to keep packaging out of the waste stream; pack in-pack out lunch program; and use of non-toxic cleaning products.
About Ridge and Valley Charter School
Local community members established Ridge and Valley Charter School to pursue innovative and personal excellence oriented teaching methods within the public school system, gaining approval of the school’s charter in 2002 and opening the school for students in the 2004-2005 academic year.
Ridge and Valley Charter School is a public K-8 school of choice that provides students an education for a hopeful sustainable future. Our educational program and curriculum honors children as individuals and emphasizes personal excellence, hands-on experiential education, self-directed and outdoor learning, project-based learning, earth literacy, bioregional studies – all in the context of our 13.7 billion-year-old Universe.
RVCS is a tuition-free public school that follows NJ state education standards and testing requirements within the context of our mission.
Want to Learn More? RSVP for our next Information Night on Thursday, October 5th, 2017 at 7 p.m. by calling Jen Ross @ 908-362-1114
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Ridge and Valley Charter School Students put their Education to Good Use
Ridge and Valley Charter School (RVCS) 2nd and 3rd grade Nova Team students have been planning for their upcoming overnight expedition to Pocono Environmental Expedition Center (PEEC) in Dingman’s Ferry, PA. They successfully developed a strategy to raise money for the trip by hosting a student-led market where they sold handmade goods to the school community. This was a great lesson in planning and execution for these young entrepreneurs.
Overnight expeditionary experiences like the PEEC trip are embedded into the RVCS curriculum, from kindergarten through graduation, and offer some of the most important and exciting opportunities to its students. Not only are these experiences a critical element in the development of self-confidence and a love of the natural world, but they also provide a rich, integrated way to learn and apply the skills and knowledge that the students are studying throughout the year.
Creating a school market to fundraise for the trip was closely tied to the mission and foundational principles of the school which includes student-led and experiential learning, integrated curriculum and ecological literacy.
RVCS students are placed at the center of their own learning and are empowered to make decisions for themselves. RVCS and families partner to fund student trips. The Nova Team students decided to offset the family cost and were inspired to fundraise for their special trip. They came up with the idea to create a student-led market at the school where they could sell handmade items to students, families and teachers. They took the idea from inception to fruition with great success.
Art, crafting, building and creating are woven into the curriculum at RVCS so the students are adept at making beautiful creations that could be appealing to consumers. The students, in a circle meeting format unique to the school, brainstormed what they wanted to make and how to structure the market. They planned, organized, agreed on prices and set up the market as if they were the owners of a real store. They then worked at the market, interacted with customers, communicated about the products and handled the financial side of receiving and counting money.
Experiential learning like this occurs when students are placed in a situation where they think and interact, learn in and from a real-world environment. While traditional teaching and learning are typically teacher-directed, content-driven, text-oriented and classroom-based, experiential learning involves active participation of the student in planning, development and execution of learning activities, is shaped by the problems and pressures arising from the real-world situation and occurs most effectively outside the classroom.
Students at RVCS build cross-discipline skills that integrate subject matter through hands-on experiential activities that activate a wide range of sensibilities, skills and awareness. It’s a way of teaching and learning that does not depend on the usual division of knowledge into separate subjects.
The students used their math, language arts, science, and communication skills simultaneously in just about every aspect of the market. Much of what they sold had a connection to what they learned this year. Some of the items they decided to make were bird feeders, bee blocks, a class recipe book, star braid looms made from wood harvested at the school, natural dryer balls, herb infused lip balm, gardener’s hand salve and weather wands, a result of their study of weather cycles, local bird habitats, cooking, gardening, math and language arts.
Ridge and Valley Charter School believes that it is possible to create a more ecologically sustainable future and that our children have a right to a planet of pure air, clean water, a vibrant natural world and a more just and equitable human community.
In keeping with the mission of the school, the students wanted the items they made to be composed of natural, organic and locally sourced ingredients as well as donated items that could be reused and repurposed. They recognized that these items are more sustainable and better for the planet. Some of the materials even came from the school land.
Nova Market was a success!
The student-led market was a success with almost all of the items selling out. Their goal was to raise $300 however, the market was so popular that the students raised over $1000. There was a great sense of accomplishment and so much learned along the way.
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Our Annual Student-Led Conferences are One of the Many Things that make Ridge & Valley Charter School Unique
Student-led conferences are meetings with students, parents, and teachers (called “guides” at RVCS) during which a student shares work and discusses his/her progress. The intention is for the student to lead the meeting from start to finish. Student involvement in a conference makes learning active, provides opportunities for students to evaluate their own performance, and encourages students to take responsibility for their learning. Having students take charge of the conference makes them more accountable for what they are learning.
Prior to conferences, the students, with guide support, collect work that reflects what they have learned. Students then evaluate their work and, as they conduct their conference, explain skills they have learned and share goals they have set for themselves. While a guide may serve as the conference facilitator, the student will lead the conference.
Student-led conferences offer the opportunity for students to play an important part in their own educational process. This approach fits beautifully with the holistic, student-centered focus of our mission that recognizes children are capable and responsible.
The Student-Led Conference Format Offers Many Benefits to Students, Including:
- Having greater accountability for their learning
- Learning to think about and evaluate their own progress
- Gaining a greater commitment to school work and learning
- Building self-confidence and self-esteem
- Encouraging student/parent communication
- Building communication and critical thinking skills
- Placing greater responsibility on the student
- Allowing students to become more actively involved
Families Benefit from this Format as Well as it:
- Helps families learn more about their child’s learning and skills
- Offers an opportunity for families to help their child set positive goals
- Encourages active family participation in their child’s learning
Conferences are a wonderful opportunity for families to see, hear and experience their child’s learning and progress. To learn more about our holistic assessment practices visit our website.
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From a young age students at Ridge and Valley Charter School develop a love of reading. There is a strong focus on becoming confident readers and writers. In a recent unit kindergarten students have been excited to use their reading “super powers” to help develop their reading skills.
Ridge & Valley’s Reading and Writing Model Inspired by Columbia University
At Ridge and Valley Charter School, a Reading and Writing Workshop model inspired by Columbia University‘s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project is used. There is a focus on developing students’ reading, writing and speaking skills within their own areas of interest. Doing so in the context of real and practical applications of those skills allows the learner to see the difference that their efforts can make. Instruction is embedded in content, topics and books chosen by the students and is differentiated based on their abilities. This model helps Ridge and Valley Charter School students develop a deep rooted strength in reading and writing that serves them well in high school and beyond.
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Ridge and Valley Charter School graduate Lara Watrous has been awarded the highest Girl Scout honor, the “Gold Award.” As a Gold Award recipient, Lara is part of an elite group of women. Only 5-6% of all Girl Scouts earn this award which requires completion of an ambitious service project aimed at improving their communities–and the world. Lara’s passion for horses inspired her to embark on a project aimed at raising awareness for a therapeutic horse riding facility called Riding with HEART (RwH) in Alexandria, NJ. To learn more about Lara’s impressive accomplishments and Gold Award recognition check out this article:
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Ridge and Valley Charter School students participate in a number of garden projects throughout each year. They save seeds for planting, tend to various gardens and orchard, and ultimately harvest a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. This past season they harvested a bountiful tomato crop. Sixteen quarts of tomatoes were harvested, blanched, peeled, and frozen this fall by students. As they studied food systems, the students explored ways to share their abundant harvest and make an impact on the food system in our area. While furthering their learning of food systems, these middle school students reached out to help the food insecure in our area.
Making Local Connections
During their quest to donate the organic food grown in their garden and volunteer at a local soup kitchen, the students connected with a local Blairstown establishment, Buck Hill Brewery and Restaurant, to prepare food for donation in the restaurant’s board certified commercial kitchen. A date was set, and delicious tomato soup was made with guidance from Buck Hill’s head chef. Chef Brett shared his expertise and tricks of the trade with the students. The organic and locally grown tomato soup was shared with Manna House in Newton. Many of the students also participated in serving the meal, as well.
Ridge and Valley Experiences Provide Students with a Sense of Purpose
This experience added a sense of authentic purpose to the students’ work, as well as enhanced their experience learning to grow food and study of systems. Ridge and Valley Charter School is grateful to Buck Hill Brewery and Restaurant and Manna House for their willingness to partner with our students in their efforts to make a difference.
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