Christina Sanchirico and Julie Langenbacher

Whether you’re new to the area or have been here for 15 years, it’s possible, if not likely, that you’re knowledge of the Ithaca Public Education Initiative (IPEI) ranges somewhere between lacking or nonexistent. 

Founded in 1996, the IPEI is a community-based, nonprofit 501(c) 3 organization that develops supportive community and private-sector relationships with the Ithaca City School District (ICSD). IPEI executive director Christine Sanchirico said making sure Ithacans know what IPEI does, and that their efforts rely heavily on community support, is critical to making sure the organization continues to achieve their biggest goal, which is “serving all students.” They support programs that go beyond the required curriculum in the schools.

“Letting people know what we do [is one of IPEI’s biggest challenges],” she added. “Parents might not be aware. Sometimes kids come home and don’t tell them what they’re doing in school. And we really want parents to know that IPEI is providing these opportunities for engaging students in these great projects.”

Part of the reason IPEI flies under the radar is that their programs come in all shapes and forms. The foundation for its mission is based on more than $200,000 raised in grants. That figure includes money they provide through their affiliates and the Kids Discover the Trail program. 

“We have a lot of different aspects to what we do,” Sanchirico said. “We provide grants—right now we have three different levels of grants we provide to teachers. Our mission is connecting school and community, so for many of our grants, we request that teachers pull in one of the resources in the community to bring into the classroom. I think that’s what really engages kids and makes them excited.”

Those grants often result in a memorable experience for students and teachers alike, IPEI Administrative and Program Associate Julie Langenbacher noted. 

“Belle Sherman Schools partnered with the Haudenosaunee tribes,” she noted, “and had them come in and talk about their culture, teamed up with the students to make a mural, and what came out of that was a knowledge base for the students, but the teachers also learned about the conversation and learning style of the elders in the tribe. While [the teachers] had specific lesson plans, the elders had a much calmer, and slower pace and learning style that allowed the children to speak up and set the tone in ways the teachers didn’t expect.”

Sanchirico, who started as the first executive director in September 2013, said making sure IPEI has enough volunteers and community support will play a huge role in continuing the organization’s success, including working IPEI events such as its annual spelling bee, which netted over $30,000 in 2016

“I was really excited,” Sanchirico recalled, “about what the Ithaca Public Education Initiative does in terms of engaging students. My kids didn’t take advantage of IPEI’s program when they went through [ICSD], and I can see now how the kids benefit from IPEI’s programs. It’s really exciting. I want to make sure IPEI stays here. 

“We’re excited about our new office and having paid staff,” she continued. “IPEI was founded in 1996 and run by volunteers until 2011. The spelling bee is an event we put on every March, and all the funds raised at the spelling bee provide money for our grants, which is fantastic. That’s always an event where we need more volunteers. There are several different ways people can get involved, including serving on our boards or committees, or write articles and take photos for us at some of our grant projects.”

Both Sanchirico and Langenbacher stressed the importance of having an organization in a community like Ithaca. ICSD is a big part of the city’s community, so it only makes sense for the community to be a big part of ICSD, Sanchirico noted.

“Schools can be dissociated from the community sometimes,” she said, “and I think our mission of connecting school and community is really critical, both for giving people in the community the opportunity to work with the children, and especially for the children to learn what’s out there in their community. I really worry that education is being undervalued in this country, and it’s really the future—how they’re educated and how they’re engaged.”

For that reason, it’s important new and old Ithacans take the time to find out about IPEI.

“We can’t do what we do,” Sanchirico said, “without from the community.” §

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