CANTON — Walking up to the two-story Deep Root Center, a crafted Tin Man, from “The Wizard of Oz,” serves as a greeter. Continuing onto the porch and crossing the threshold of the front door, a creative, colorful frenzy can be observed on any given day.
On Monday, that frenzy involved a colorful birthday cake baking in Deep Root Center’s kitchen oven and a sweet aroma filling the house.
“Kids learn how to seek out the information they want to learn on their own,” said Maria Corse, Deep Root Center founder and executive director. “It’s completely different than anything most people equate with education.”
Celebrating her 10th birthday, Kiana Tiernan, a student at Deep Root Center, cut into a vanilla cake adorned with rainbow sprinkles.
Deep Root is an education and after-school hub for students ages 5 to 19, where one rule is solidly enforced: respect.
Other than that, kids are encouraged to work through individualized learning plans with the help of Deep Root staff and peers.
The Center, 48 Riverside Dr., Canton, celebrated its sixth anniversary Monday, and will now offer programs in Lawrenceville — the second center will temporarily be located at the Lawrenceville Fire Department, until the permanent Lawrenceville rental space is ready.
The need to expand to a second location, Ms. Corse said, has arisen due to the Canton center being at capacity. By September 2019, 15 students were on the waiting list for the school year. The first day of programming in Lawrenceville is scheduled for Jan. 7.
Ms. Corse has 17 years of alternative education experience and believes in the playfulness of learning, that the best learning outcomes are derived from hands-on experimentation.
With learning and curricular flexibility, Deep Root operates on “self-directed learning,” and is modeled on programs facilitated by North Star Learning Center in Sunderland, Mass.
Founded in 1996 by Ken Danford and Joshua Hornick, North Star provides an alternative to middle and high school for teens, and as interest in the education style grew, similar centers started to emerge across the country.
After sharing its vision at replication conferences in 2011 and 2012, Liberated Learners, Sunderland, was built on the principles of North Star to assist local centers with organizational needs and increase awareness of the education model.
As a member of Liberated Learners, Deep Root Center fosters student development through a home school legal framework, which allows students to leave traditional school to become members of Deep Root.
To fulfill that framework, Individualized Home Instruction Plans are developed for each student with guidance from Deep Root staff.
Specific subjects, including math and English, are incorporated into IHIPs in compliance with state law, and at Deep Root, such subjects are referred to as “buckets” that are intended to be filled with classes, projects, creative activities and independent research, all in line with a student’s personal interests.
Serving kids who have previously been enrolled at more conventional public or private schools, or acting as a supplement to kids who are home schooled at their own residences, Deep Root aims to offer something for everyone. On Monday alone, Ms. Corse said, “we’ve got kids playing chess, we’ve got the bakers and the art makers.”
While the younger students, called “seedlings,” are guided with more structure, older kids and teens are granted freedom to explore their learning goals and check in with staff mentors weekly.
For Deep Root apprentice Chase Villenueve, becoming part of the Deep Root team after completing his work as a student last year was an easy decision.
Mr. Villenueve arrived at Deep Root Center as a student in 2017 from Gouverneur High school, where he was constantly concerned about time — timed classes, time to study, timed tests and a generally time-oriented schedule.
“Here, I didn’t have to worry about time,” Mr. Villenueve said. “I had time to do stuff at my own pace.”
Though transitioning from public school to Deep Root required some adjusting, Mr. Villenueve said the stress level associated with Deep Root was more manageable, and he has been proud of his role as an apprentice helping other students at the center.
All students, Ms. Corse said, are welcome at Deep Root Center — regardless of a family’s ability to pay. And with the center providing around $120,000 a year in fee reductions, Ms. Corse has looked to community partnerships and a budding after-school program to fill gaps.
“I pinch a dime until it screams,” she said.
In partnership with the Food Bank of Central New York and through the Church and Community Program of Canton and the Canton Neighborhood Center, Deep Root receives food pantry items each week to keep the center’s kitchen stocked and students fed.
As Deep Root Center grows, so does the need for continued support, which can take a variety of forms, Ms. Corse said, from registering kids in the center’s after-school care program to volunteering to share a certain skill or passion with students.
Between the chasing footsteps and experimenting, a student sat in the “chill space” quietly reading, another composed a song upstairs using a computer software program.
But all eventually convened in the kitchen when Kiana informed them, “Cake is ready.”