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New charter school to encourage unconventional education

Ellen Abbott
OnTECH founder Ellen Eagen

Construction will begin soon on Syracuse’s Near West Side to create OnTECH, a charter school targeted towards helping refugees and at-risk students get their high school diplomas.

OnTECH founder Ellen Eagen describes the mission of the school as “dovetailing this child who’s on the cusp of falling off of the educational pipeline with an employable skill set and with this idea of reengaging them with their curiosity in education.”

Eagan says the school will give students who might be failing in traditional schools skills for work in the future. She describes the curriculum as being heavy on remediation and project based learning with a focus on industries that are growing in central New York, like agriculture and renewable energy.

“We’re going to have agronomics, we’re going to have a vertical garden,” Eagen said. “We’re going to have a plot of land we hope the parents can come in and work on too to incorporate the community.”

Eagen hopes OnTECH will be able to reach populations mired in a cycle of poverty in a way that hasn’t been done before. She says the school’s focus on agriculture and project-based learning makes for a unique combination.

“There are bits and pieces all over the country,” Eagen said. “But a school that is urban and full-on project-based agriculture, I have yet to find it.”

Members of Syracuse’s refugee population are on board with OnTECH. Cyprien Mihigo, a leader of central New York’s Congolese community, says his neighbors are embracing an educational system that focuses on jobs, especially in fields like agriculture. And he says it comes at a good time, when some refugee communities feel like they’re under attack.

"OnTECH is our tool, at the right time, at the right moment, to prove to people that we are not a burden, we are an asset,” Cyprien said.

OnTECH received approval to become a charter school from New York state last December, and Eagan expects the school to be up and running by fall of 2018.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.