D to A: Roots and Wings school raises state grade

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With the release of the New Mexico Public Education Department school grades the past month, Roots and Wings Community Charter School in Lama has much to celebrate for the 2017 school year.

The unique state charter school raised its 2016 grade of a D to the current A standing, a jump celebrated by New Mexico Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski, who presented the school with a banner. The school offers its nearly 50 students a more outdoors-centered approach to learning by taking the children on frequent hikes and learning through nature while still adhering to the common core standards of the state in the classrooms.

"It was actually a big jump from a D to an A," said Roots and Wings Director Randall Green. "It basically points out that the students did well on testing."

While no stranger to receiving high grades from the state, Green said the bump from D to A, the highest grade jump for schools in the area, is mostly due to the students and teachers working extra hard in several aspects the previous year to bring the school's grade back up. Stating that the A grade was a delightful surprise, Green said the challenge now is to keep the school at that high-performing level. PED grades are based on a number of factors. Standardized tests do play a heavy part in determining a school's grade, along with opportunity to learn and school improvement.

The school's founders, Tod Wynward and Peg Bartlett, began Roots and Wings nearly 20 years ago with the vision of an alternative learning environment for children based on their love for the outdoors. Students at Roots and Wings take hikes and often spend nights camping on trails with teachers during the warmer times of the year and are also given classroom instruction by their respective teachers. The school has been operating through a state charter after its charter through the Questa Independent School District expired in 2015. It has three different grade levels - ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade - and four teachers on the faculty.

"We're the only public school that I know of in the nation that takes third-graders on four-day backpack trips," said Bartlett. "To take kids out and do team building and character building that way, it changes kids. The wilderness is a really powerful element."

Students at Roots and Wings are taught with an expeditionary-influenced learning style, which gives teachers the ability to write their curriculum for the courses and often includes an intensive outdoors program. After the second grade at Roots and Wings, parents are encouraged to let their little ones on the trails alone. Bartlett says it builds a better sense of independence for the students.

While the Roots and Wings style of learning isn't the only thing different about the school, many of its students rely on the North Central Regional Transit District buses to and from school. The students are also taught how to pack for an extensive hike in the woods and leave no trace behind of their presence when camping.

Many of the amenities needed for a camping trip, including backpacks, sleeping bags or camping pads, are provided by the school and are rented out by Roots and Wings for the trips. These trips teach students how to respect the wilderness, as well as to learn about their environment in a more hands-on way.

"The kids did a great job and they obviously took things seriously, as did the faculty," said Green.

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