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  • Education Spotlight: Rochester River School
  • Liz Lenz

Education Spotlight: Rochester River School

Words and photos provided by Olivia Bauso

Imagine a classroom that focuses primarily on social issues of the community, teaching children to creatively solve real-world problems from day one. Instead of answering to standards set by administration, students would learn how to use their math, science and communication skills to make a difference in their larger community.

The concept doesn’t really seem so far-off. Anyone can get behind teaching life-skills to students, but we’re talking real, place-based education here. Place-based education is a learning philosophy which seeks to grow communities by engaging students and staff in solving community problems. Lessons are determined by local history, geography, and even weather.


Joel Helfrich and Jericsson Pichardo aim to put this philosophy to work in Rochester. With local waterways in mind, their vision is simple: The Rochester River School. The Rochester River School will provide “humane education” for Rochester students. Coursework will center around human rights, sustainable living, animal ethics, community and cultural concerns, and their viable solutions. Oh, and if it all goes well, they will be the first public vegan school in the country.

The structure of the school borrows from several existing models. For example, The New York Harbor School-- which first sparked the inspiration for RRS-- is a college preparatory school that offers a maritime experience for students on Governors Island. The curriculum was founded in ethics of environmental stewardship, and focuses on teaching relevant, transferable skills like those associated with water. Co-founder Pichardo is a graduate of the school and became a certified Dive Master upon graduation. His partner, Helfrich says “this totally floored me. After seeing how the school changed his life I wondered, ‘why can’t we make this work here?’” The Rochester River School will use the the Genesee River as it’s core curriculum, with the Erie Canal and surrounding lakes in mind.


With more research, Helfrich found many schools are using similar place-based models to encourage student success. Common Ground is a “center for environmental learning and leadership” in Connecticut, and proves an education centered solely around habits of healthy living and sustainable environmental practices is viable. The center is broken up into several factions including a high school, community classroom space, urban farm and CSA. The Rochester River school hopes to one day be able to grow its own vegetables to be used in school lunches, and develop a CSA program similar to that established at Common Ground.

Helfrich names The Betty Shabazz International Charter School (Chicago, IL), and MUSE School (Calabasas, CA) as the inspiration for RRS’s proposed vegan lunch and snack program. Introducing a vegan diet makes sense with the school’s humane education philosophy, though students will not be forced to comply. Helfrich says, “We’ve done the research, and we believe this is the most sustainable diet.” He explains that children will, of course, be allowed to bring their favorite foods from home, but those who need to obtain nutrients from the school will get plant-based foods only. “We will provide a good meal for them,” Helfrich adds.


After working hard to become a part of the Rochester City School District for almost two years, Helfrich and Pichardo realized their dream may have to shift. “The district officials weren’t interested in adding new schools to the system, and we didn’t love the idea of starting a charter school,” Helfrich explains. But, they’ve put their issues with charter schools aside and are now working to submit an application to establish the RRS as such.

Applying for a charter is lengthy process: teams must first select which authorizer they want to work with, then compile a planning team to submit a Letter of Intent. Once the letter is submitted, the team must be invited by the authorizer to submit full proposals, as long as they are qualified. The proposal is then followed up with an interview and put up for a SUNY Charter School Institute vote. Helfrich said "We submitted our 144-page Letter of Intent to the SUNY Trustees on February 15 and two weeks after, we learned that we are able to submit the entire application by March 13. In addition to our Humane Education-focused school philosophy and vegan food program, we plan to establish the first teacher residency program in New York State (outside of New York City)."

Knowing the time and work this process would take, Helfrich and Pichardo compiled a board of advisors and consultants to work with the board of directors of the Rochester River Foundation. These 25+ professionals are all volunteers that believe in the success of the school. Helfrich says many of the volunteers have sought them out, or are simply needed on the team: “When we meet people that have certain skill sets or are really supportive, we ask them to join!” These team members are also recruiting businesses to partner with the foundation. Those listed on the RRS’s site have pledged their support for the school, and as Helfrich says, “will connect with the school in a deeper and more sustained way once we’re authorized.”


But many businesses have vocalized that they can’t establish a partnership with the school until they have secured full financial backing; this creates a bit of a catch-22 for the Rochester River School. The foundation is still working to raise the rest of their estimated funds in order to get things started. So, they’re “laser focused on that part right now,” as Helfrich explains.

In the end, the goal is to raise compassionate kids. Helfrich states this as the school’s primary mission: “We want to use the legacy and assets that we have right here in Rochester, and incorporate the common core to create compassionate individuals.” They aim to educate students that become less focused on competition, and more focused on being kind to each other, the earth and animals.

Want to help the Rochester River Foundation establish the Rochester River School? Follow them on social media for updates on fundraisers and events, and to stay current with the latest in humane education news.



  • Liz Lenz

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