LACS’ philosophy states; "We believe in encouraging students to use freedom responsibly, and to make educational choices appropriate to their individual levels of development." (see Philosophy in the LACS Footbook). LACS offers broad academic freedom to students, including having them design their own course of study. Students are on a first name basis with their teachers, and some students help teach classes and projects. Rather than grades, students receive written evaluations, and reflect and evaluate on their own learning at the end of each quarter.
Every student is part of a "Family Group" that provides guidance and teaches students to "live cooperatively with others." Each student participates in a "committee" that helps to run some aspect of the school. Examples include the Alternative Community Court (ACC) that deals with disciplinary issues, the Agenda Committee that runs the All School Meetings, WAM that oversees student mentoring, and the maintenance committee. Each student also participates in a weekly All School Meeting, deciding many key issues facing the school. During ASMs, students and staff discuss and vote on proposals to change the school.
Meaningful In-Depth Learning:
The schools philosophy statement begins; "We believe we have a responsibility to promote a broader world view and a positive change by the way we design our curriculum and prepare our students for learning throughout their lives." (see footbook) LACS classes emphasize depth over breadth and critical thinking over memorization. The LACS curriculum stresses in-depth research, writing, experimentation, problem solving and performance. Many classes explore complex issues that reflect the schools commitment to both social justice and critical thinking. LACS classes are typically quite small, with many English/social studies and math/science classes using longer 90-minute blocks for interdisciplinary study. This has led to discussions about moving to a block schedule. However, the democratic process tends to be quite conservative and the All School Meeting has yet to reach the 2/3 vote needed to make this big change.
LACS has a commitment to creating a sustainable community in all aspects of the school, including the school lunch program, various classes, and volunteer opportunities. LACS works closely with Ithaca's Youth Farm to grow and consume local, organic produce for our school lunch program. The LACS service program has become a core part of many student's experience at the school. While the service requirement at middle school (1 cycle) and high school (60 hours) may be an initial motivation for some student, many LACS alumni reflect back on their service experiences as having been critical in shaping their identities as caring and active adults. The humanities curriculum at LACS emphasizes both social responsibility and critical thinking with courses such as Facing History and Ourselves, Civil Rights Literature, and People’s History of the United States. While the curriculum and requirements such as the Facing Bias Essential explicitly value social justice, LACS students are also taught to think critically and to question the values and actions of the school community.
LACS's middle school Promotion by Exhibition (PBE) and high school Graduation by Exhibition (GBE) portfolios require students to demonstrate to themselves and others the skills and knowledge they have mastered (see footbook). Classes build core academic skills while requiring students to make choices about the content
of their studies. Many classes ask students to give public performances of learning such as the student-run Shakespeare project, the Middle East Debates, and the Performance Based Assessment Tasks delivered by all juniors. In order to graduate each student must complete a complex digital portfolio with demonstrations in 10 Essential Area that show their fundamental skills and knowledge in over 50 core outcomes. These Essential Areas include the traditional subject areas (English, Math, Arts, PE, etc) as well as unique LACS requirements voted in by the All School Meeting including "Community Service," "Career Explorations," "Conflict Resolution," and "Facing Bias." Each student also is responsible for completing an "8th Grade Challenge" and "Senior Project" that are on display at middle school promotion and high school graduation.
LACS alumni often comment on the way the school helped them to figure out who they were as individuals and to take ownership for their own learning. LACS does not give grades but staff write individual narrative evaluations each quarter in response to student reflections on their own strengths, challenges and opportunities for growth. As important as academic skills and knowledge, particularly in middle school, are LACS's "Habits of Responsibility for a Self Directed Learner." (see footbook) Each student reflects on these "Habits" (organization, awareness, respect, initiative and perseverance) through goal setting in Family Group and throughout the curriculum. When students struggle with being successful at LACS they are dealt with individually with an emphasis on self-reflection, responsibility and the development of strategies for success.
LACS believes that some of the most important learning can takes place outside of the classroom. In the fall, the entire school takes a two-day retreat to build relationships and community. In the spring, students choose from many options for the school's week-long "Trips Week" in May. During the 4th quarter the bulk of each Thursday is devoted to training and fundraising for Trips Week. Many trips include physical challenges such as canoeing, biking, and rock climbing. Local trips may visit nearby museums or make films. Service trips include the Katrina Relief trip to New Orleans and the Akwesasnee trip to the Mohawk Reservation. Global language students have the option of joining a Family Group that spends the year fundraising for a weeklong trip to a French or Spanish-speaking country. LACS builds extended time in for “Projects” each Tuesday afternoon and Thursday morning. Students choose from academic projects (bio lab, math help, senior seminar), physical projects (hiking, tap dance), hands on projects (silk-screening, photo lab) and time for community service or career explorations. Many projects are led by students. We also have an all school morning meeting each Monday and Friday for school and community announcements.
Diversity and Equity:
LACS is a public school with a student body reflective of the ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic diversity within the Ithaca City School District. The school aims "To remain steadfastly responsive to the people who make up the school community and, thus, to adapt to the changing needs of our students, parents/caregivers, and staff." LACS has a long history of anti-racism and equity work and reflecting on the biases and limitations that inevitably exist within the school community. Classes and other curricular activities are heterogeneously grouped and generally include students from multiple grades. As a small school with many students attending from 6th through 12th grade, each student is typically known well by the community of students and staff. This is reflected in LACS’s 4+ hour long graduation ceremony where each of the roughly 40 graduates present their senior project before appearing on stage as a staff member presents them to the audience with a 3-minute speech. No student graduates from LACS without being known, seen and heard