Jenna Kendall, director of student services, at Cascadilla School.

ITHACA, NY -- Up on East Hill, about a block-and-a-half from Cornell University, sits Cascadilla School. A brick building draped in ivy, the school serves students in grades 6-12,  generally enrolling about 50 students in total. Classes usually function at about a 4:1 student:faculty ratio.

“We have smaller class sizes, smaller graduating class sizes, so we cater to a more individualized approach to education,” Jenna Kendall, director of student services, said.

The curriculum is traditional, following the New York State Regents system, but students and teachers have a bit more flexibility when it comes to the timing of classes they take. For instance, if a student excels in math class, they can take it on a semester schedule. This way, they can take one course in the fall, take the January Regents exam, and then move to the next course in the spring and take the June exam for that one, rather than spend an entire year on the same class. 

This flexibility also benefits students who might be struggling in a subject.

“We can offer students what they need as they progress through their high school career,” teacher Chris Jensen said. “Some may need some more time or some may want to go faster, so we make the curriculum work for the students' needs and I think it works very well.”

The school also offers electives, often an extra English or writing course, in a variety of subjects. Kendall said last year the school did a science fiction course for some students in English. They’ll also do history courses that focus on one specific topic such as civil rights or Native American literature, and extra science courses like psychology or anatomy and physiology.

Cascadilla School is a mix between local students, non-local American students and international students. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, numbers at the school have dropped significantly.

“A lot of our international kids did not come back, or some Zoomed in from their countries,” Kendall said.

She added that ideally the school serves about 50 students, but last year they were down to 12 because of the pandemic. 

“We made it work,” she said. “There was a lot of Zooming.”

The variety of students from Ithaca and other states comes from people looking for something different than the standard public school experience.

“I have a lot of respect for what [Ithaca High School] and other high schools are doing, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” Kendall said. “There are kids who want to get ahead or kids who, for whatever reason, aren’t comfortable in a classroom size of 30 students, or just aren’t getting the personalized attention that they could be getting.”

She said with an average class size of four, “you really get the full service.”

“You can’t not have your homework done, you can’t hide in the back of the classroom,” Kendall said. “You’ll get the most out of it that you can, and teachers will give you their 100%.”

With such small classes, teachers are better able to make sure students are grasping what’s going on in class, Kendall said.

“You’ve got that classroom structure and classroom lesson plans, but you have time to focus on individual students,” Jensen added. “You have the time as you go along to do that, so I’m always thinking you aim high, you aim low, and you’re directing a lot in the middle, but there are times for all of it.”

There are a few different reasons international students come to Cascadilla School. Kendall said the parents of their Chinese students often want their children to learn English and get into a reputable American college. There are also students from Honduras who are looking for a safer place than their home country to get an education, Kendall said. This past year there were also students from Angola and France. 

“We have a really fun international population,” Kendall said. “We try to do a good job of bridging the gap so there’s not a division in the school between local students and international students who live in the dorm.”

Another part of the Cascadilla curriculum is college preparation. Because the class sizes are so small, Kendall said they can really work with students on the application process including going over applications, preparing supplements and having essays reviewed by English teachers.

Admissions are rolling, meaning students can register for Cascadilla School anytime, though Kendall said by Aug. 15 would be ideal for the 2021-22 school year. 

“But we’re not going to turn someone away who wants to be here.” 

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