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Freeville special needs school opens new wing to accommodate more female students

George+Junior+Republic+works+with+local+public+school+districts+to+provide+additional+resources+for+students+who+struggle+in+traditional+classroom+settings.+
George Junior Republic works with local public school districts to provide additional resources for students who struggle in traditional classroom settings.

The George Junior Republic, a high school in Freeville designed to provide educational services for special needs and at-risk teens, opened a new wing this month as part of a multimillion dollar ongoing capital project.

Anticipation of the rise in the number of female students was one of the main reasons for the addition of a new wing, Assistant Superintendent Tom Watts said.

The school — which began as an all-boys school in 1909 and is located on a 650 acre campus as its own district — has welcomed a wider range of disadvantaged youth, and now includes 24 female residential students. This group of students will benefit most from the new addition, Superintendent Sonya Apker said.

A 14,000 square foot addition was made to the main school building on campus, and includes a new wing specifically for female students, updated classrooms with more technology, the school’s first music room, and an all-purpose conference room.

The purpose of the expansion, Apker said, is to increase the school’s capacity to be able to reach more students. Before the expansion, she said, the school could not develop any more programs or bring in any more students. Now they have more classroom spaces, and are able to accommodate an increase in day school students. Numbers will most likely rise from the 24 day-school students they currently have to 30 in the coming years, she said.

Watts said that monthly calls from the State Education Department and stringent guidelines for grant funding can be difficult at times, but is often a welcomed push for George Junior to focus on moving forward.

“It’s a challenge, it’s a frustration,” He said of the changing population of students the State instructs the institution to prioritize. In recent years, that population has been the number of young girls who have experienced trauma in their pasts, which is the main reason for the additions to the school.

“It encourages us to find what the next population that needs service, but its exciting that we’re reaching more kids,” Watts added.

Before the expansion on the school building, Apker said, the school was not able to properly accommodate new underserved populations. Today, the district accepts students from more than 50 counties in New York state and provides services for students on an individual basis.

“Prior to us making any additions we were using every nook and cranny of student space.We could not develop any more new programs or bring in any more [student] populations to serve; we were maxed out.”

The new expansion ultimately allows them to reach more students and change more lives, she added. Other benefits that have come from the recent renovations are that Promethean Boards, also known as SMART Technology, will now be used in nearly every classroom, and a new music room with individual practice rooms which are open for student use this fall.

Superintendent Apker started the proposal for expansion in 2008 by applying for State approval. After collecting data from need studies from local school districts, receiving letters of support from local schools and doing community advocacy with local representatives, the loan from Tompkins Trust Company was approved two years later, Apker said.

Students at George Junior Republic are largely made up of boys and girls who have suffered from traumatic events in their lives and should not be stereotyped as criminals, Apker said. Many of the students are emotionally disturbed and require unique attention in and outside of the classroom too, she added.

“That’s what’s unique about us is that we just take them as a student,” Apker said.

With little-to-no success in traditional public school education, many of the students who attend George Junior have either been sent by the state to live in the district’s residential housing or commute from any of the partnering districts in the state.

Watts explained that as the district expands, they hope more people are able to understand the growth students who require a non-traditional education can make if they have the right tools.

“What you’ll uncover is the reason why we have to get investments from the State. Everything we do here is so crucial and we can really accomplish a lot for these kids with the right tools,” Watts said.

Apker said the hidden gem of state funding and the school’s ability to propose expansions like the new wing, is that the faculty gets the opportunities and resources they need to enrich lives for students.

“The gem lies in our ability to adjust and adapt and grow in the population that we reach versus staying stagnant,” Apker said.

This school year, fresh faces line the new classroom wing of George Junior Republic, and administrators have wasted no time moving on to the next task: a $4 million renovation of the student recreation center on campus.

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