Riverhead Charter School Debuts New High School As First Graduation Class Begins Junior Year

Last week saw many firsts for the Riverhead Charter School. The first week of the school year. The first week back without the burden of pandemic restrictions. The first week of school for many new preschoolers.

But the biggest firsts took place on Sound Avenue — miles from the school’s main campus on Middle Country Road in Calverton — where the high school students began their classes in the newly renovated old schoolhouse in Northville, and the first graduating class of the Riverhead Charter School. started with the first week of 11th grade.

“It’s really exciting,” said Daniella Marroquin Contreras, a junior. “mainly have been” [a student] here since I was five.”

Marroquin Contreras is on track to be one of the first students to complete their entire K-12 education at Riverhead Charter School, originally established in 2001 as a K-6 school, in 2024. The school has students from 16 school districts in Suffolk County and has expanded for enrollment and instruction over the years with charter renewals. The most recent charter, approved in March, allowed the school to add classes 11 and 12 and expand enrollment by about 400 students. Next year, the twelfth grade will be added at secondary school.

The newly opened Riverhead Charter High School during the first week of school in September 2022. Photo: Alek Lewis

Marroquin Contreras could remember the days when her classes were taught in a trailer. Now she takes classes in newly renovated classrooms in a historic building that is “beautiful” and “super spaced out”.

“We all feel very comfortable,” said Marroquin Contreras, who described her class as a family. “It’s cool to see how that continues, even as we expand. And everyone is super attentive, like everyone is important here, which is really great. No one is a little hidden, or likes to blend in with the crowd. Everyone has a place here. And it’s really exciting”

The new high school building has eight classrooms, some of which can be split in half to create separate space during classes. They are named after several colleges across the country. The high school has a total enrollment of 80 students in grades 9, 10 and 11, with the new 11th grade having 14 students. There are 15 staff on site, including teachers, administrators and other staff.

High school students now have something to call themselves, instead of sharing space with younger students — or in the case of the last two years, partially online at home. They can stretch their legs and move from room to room, instead of staying in one classroom all day while teachers walk up to them.

“I like the ceilings. I like the small designs. I love the walls,” said junior Jah’mere Jackson, whose favorite part of the new space is the architecture of the two-story schoolhouse that originally opened in 1916. “And the color too. When you walk in the first column you see it’s white, but then you walk into every room and it’s all different. It’s all like, red and blue, or red or green. Each room has its own specific design.”

Principal Patrick McKinney said having a separate space for the high school is “super exciting” and has been in the works for a while. Previously, 9th and 10th grade students shared space with elementary school students in the main charter school building in Calverton.

“Our students and teachers and families have been super flexible as we’ve grown into this. And it’s really nice to see that finished product,” he said. “Our students, the first day of school, the look on their faces was fantastic.”

McKinney gave RiverheadLOCAL a tour of the building during the school day on Thursday. The building could open in the first week of the new school year, although some renovations still need to be done.

Chevonne Archampong, who teaches 9th and 10th grade world history, said the new building and amenities have made a “big difference” to students and faculty this year.

“The feel of this building, everything is new, everything is modern and forward-thinking, I think it just creates excitement and engagement, you know? For the teachers and the students,” she says.

“The new classrooms: great. The smart boards are great. It just makes learning easy,” she added. “Even if they have a question, you know, we can just go to Google and look it up, and we can kind of be like this sporadic learning that’s fueled by the interest of students.”

Archampong said the students especially enjoy the common area, a room on the second floor that they can use to relax during their free time or lunch. She said the room has a “collegiate feel that” [students are] already experienced.”

McKinney said most of the current juniors who will become the first grade of Riverhead Charter School, such as Marroquin Contreras, have been at charter school since kindergarten. This is a big problem for former students, who used to have to go to a completely different school after they got the grades that the charter school was allowed to instruct.

“They are excited to build this with us. And they’re part of the journey,” McKinney said. “Every time we have a routine, a procedure or a party, whatever, they’re part of the first group to do that. And so we respect and appreciate that. That is why we involve them.”

The charter school is gearing up to start several new traditions, including an 11th grade dance and a homecoming party, McKinney said. This is the first year charter school high school students will have the opportunity to compete with other schools in junior varsity sports, especially soccer and cross country running.

“I grew up in a public school and I always knew I would play sports,” said Terrell Dozier, who is an athletics director, among other things. “Here, you know, we never had it. So it was like, kids who wanted, if we don’t offer it, they might go somewhere else. So we started offering sports. We want to give our children everything that any other school has.”

Several new courses are also being taught, especially now that the faculty has to teach a whole new level. In addition to the required regent courses, the charter school has begun offering a number of electives, including a course on podcasting and a course on hip-hop and its history, McKinney said.

Student clubs are also “built in” as part of a student’s schedule at the end of their day and will help students discover what they hope to pursue after high school.

“So for the first time they have 10 different options for clubs that they can use on a daily basis and that really specialize in what’s important to them,” McKinney said. “Because part of the college preparatory process is to give them the opportunity to go to college so they know what to expect. And to start this interesting piece – too many students just come to college and say, ‘I think I want to do this,’ but they don’t really know what they want to do. We want to give them that exposure.”

The school will also introduce a program so students can get internships and community service hours with several local organizations for “hands-on experiences,” McKinney said.

The school also offers juniors the opportunity to take two classes per semester at Suffolk County Community College’s early college program. Currently, eight of the 14 juniors are enrolled and are taken to college in the morning by bus, while the others take electives in Northville.

Jackson is an early college student.

“It has been excellent. I can take seven credits in college courses, and even the school sponsors us and it’s free,” he said.

There is a particular emphasis on college preparation for students, according to administrators and students alike.

“At least for me, as a student, college has been one of my top priorities, as I’ve loved doing it for the past two years,” Jackson said.

“It’s very exciting for me,” he said.

As juniors prepare to take entrance exams like the SAT and apply to colleges, they meet Dozier, who is also the dean of students and guidance counselor. “It’s all a bit mixed up with their times,” McKinney said.

“My youth class is small, so they can come to me. They don’t have to fight a lot of people to come to me to have these conversations about exactly what they want to do,” Dozier said. “So it pays off. It’s worth it to me. And I’m just excited to, you know, see where they go next year.”

Going back to school in person in a new building has been great, especially since the last two years of the coronavirus pandemic have been “rough,” Dozier said.

“To be here on Sound Avenue is a fresh start,” Dozier said.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Alek Lewis

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