Riverhead Charter School Superintendent Raymond Ankrum, left, with Riverhead Charter High School Principal Patrick McKinney outside the new high school Sept. 8, 2022. Photo: Alek Lewis

Last week marked a lot of 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 kindergarten students. 

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

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

Marroquin Contreras is on track to be one of the first students to complete their whole K-12 education at the Riverhead Charter School, originally founded in 2001 as a K-6 school, in 2024. The school has students from 16 school districts in Suffolk County and has been granted expansions for enrollment and instruction over the years with charter renewals. The most recent charter approved in March allowed the school to add grades 11 and 12 and expand its enrollment by around 400 students. Twelfth grade will be added at the high school next year.

The just-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 is taking classes in newly renovated classrooms located in a historic building that is “beautiful” and “super spaced out.”

“We all just feel very comfortable,” said Marroquin Contreras, who described her class as like a family. “It’s cool to see how even though we expand, that stays. And everyone’s super attentive, like everyone here matters, which is really great. No one’s sort of hidden, or like blending into the crowd. Everyone’s got a spot here. And it’s really exciting “

The new high school building has eight classrooms — some which can be divided into two to allow for separate space during classes. They are named for different colleges around the country. The high school has a total enrollment of 80 students in grades 9, 10 and 11, with the new 11th grade class having 14 students. There are 15 staff members on-site, including teachers, administrators and other personnel. 

High school students now have something to call their own, rather than having to share space with younger students — or in the case of the last two years, partially online at home. They get to stretch their legs and move from room to room, rather than staying put in one classroom all day while teachers move around to them.

“I love the ceilings. I love the little 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 also the color. When you walk in the first column you see it’s white, but then you walk to each 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 a project in the works for a while. Previously students in grades 9 and 10 shared space with elementary school students at the charter school’s main building in Calverton.

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

McKinney gave RiverheadLOCAL a tour of the building during the school day on Thursday. The building was able to open for the first week of the new school year, although there are still a few renovations yet to be completed. 

Chevonne Archampong, who teaches 9th and 10th grade global history, said the new building and its amenities have made a “huge difference” for both students and faculty this year.

“The feel of this building, everything being new, everything being modern and progressive, I think it just leads to excitement and engagement, you know? For the teachers and the students,” she said.

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

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

McKinney said most of the current juniors slated to be first graduating class of the Riverhead Charter School, like Marroquin Contreras, have been with the charter school since kindergarten. This is a big deal for past students, who used to have to go to an entirely different school once they finished the grades the charter school was allowed to instruct.

“They’re excited to kind of build this with us. And they’re part of the journey,” McKinney said. “Every time we have a routine or a procedure or a celebration, anything, they’re part of the first group to do that. And so we respect and appreciate that. So we bring them in on it.”

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

“I grew up in public school and I always knew that I was gonna play sports,” said Terrell Dozier, who among other roles is the director of athletics. “Here, you know, we never had it. So it was like, kids who wanted to, if we are not offering it, they might go elsewhere. So we started offering sports. We want to give our kids everything that any other school has.”

There are also several new courses being taught, especially now that faculty needs to teach a whole new grade level. Alongside the required regents 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. 

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

“So they’re going to, for the first time, have 10 different options for clubs that they get to take on a daily basis and really specialize in what’s important to them,” McKinney said. “because part of that college prep process is to give them the exposure to college, so they know what to expect. To give them the rigors of academics so they’re ready for that when they’re faced with it. And to start this interest piece — too many students come just into 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 those exposures.”

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

The school is also offering juniors the opportunity to take two classes a semester at Suffolk County Community College’s early college program. Currently eight of the 14 juniors are enrolled and are bused in the morning to the college, while the others take elective classes in Northville. 

Jackson is a student in the early college program.

“It’s been excellent. I’m able to take seven credits of college courses, and even the school is sponsoring us and it’s for free,” he said.

There is a particular emphasis on college preparation for students, both administrators and students said. 

“At least for me, as a student, college has been one of my main priorities, like on the top of my brain for the past two years,” Jackson said. 

“It’s very exciting for me,” he said. 

As juniors prepare to take admissions exams like the SAT and apply for colleges, they meet with Dozier, who is also the dean of students and guidance counselor. “It’s all kind of intermingled into their day,” McKinney said. 

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

Being 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.

“Being out here on Sound Avenue, it’s a fresh start,” Dozier said.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Alek Lewis

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com