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EYE ON EDUCATION: Pancakes anyone?
May 18, 2017

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LAKE PLACID - On a cloudy Saturday, May 13, on the farm at North Country School, beyond the picture book vistas of tan-and-white horses grazing at the foot of the rocky Cascade Pass, past the children climbing the chimney and around the corner from the compost sale, there is Isaac Mobolaji.

At the entrance to the school's dining room, he has a notepad and pen in hand, playing the role of host at the school's annual Pancake Breakfast.

"Table for one?" he asks.

Mobolaji is a personable and engaging eighth grader at North Country School. His family lives in Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, he's originally from Nigeria and he's a talented actor.

Mobolaji maintains small talk with the strangers at his table - some community members and some parents of students - while chowing down on sausage links and bacon sourced from Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville. And he tells of how Jennifer Lawrence and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the hit acclaimed Broadway play "Hamilton," are actors he admires.

Then, he pivots. He describes the nerves he felt as a middle-schooler moving to a boarding school in a different state, a familiar tale for many North Country School students.

"I was super nervous. I had no idea what boarding school was like," he said. "At first, I thought it was like where they put troubled kids or something. I had no idea, to just come to a school and staying there was a weird idea. But I'm really glad I did this. It's kind of changed my life. I'm completely different. It's given me an idea of who I am, kind of. I'm finding out more about myself that I didn't know."

Mobolaji's story of self-discovery is just one of dozens at the boarding and day school on state Route 73, 6 miles outside of this the village of Lake Placid. But those are 6 long miles of separation.

And much like the school has given Mobolaji a chance to find out more about himself that he didn't know, the purpose of the school's Pancake Breakfast each spring is to help the school and greater Lake Placid community find out more about each other and bond closer together.

For the school, perspective is paramount, and it's a huge reason why it launched the Pancake Breakfast nearly a decade ago.

Rachel Carter, the school's associate director of admissions, has been with the school for five of these events. And with each year, she said one of the primary focuses is to learn about how the school is viewed from the eyes of people who don't inhabit its grounds each day.

Yes, the school is self-sufficient. But it's operation and success wouldn't be possible without the symbiotic support of the Adirondack communities.

"When outsiders come on and say, 'Wow, you guys have a woodshop? This is what you do for your play? This is awesome!' I think it's good for us and for the students to be able to see that excitement and take a step back and say, 'Yeah, you're right, this is actually really fun,'" Carter said. "For the students to be the ones giving the barn tour saying this is how we take care of our horses, this is why we have sheep,' I think gives a sense of responsibility and pride."

"Ten thousand people drive by us in the summer," added Elie Rabinowitz, the school's farm educator and woodshop instructor. "And few people know what's going on here. So I think that this is a way to make people aware of what kind of special education kids are getting at this institution."

This spring was Rabinowitz's first Pancake Breakfast in the role of farm educator and he said he wanted to push to promote the school's farm-to-table ethos by reaching out to the Adirondack farming community.

So this year's event built off of prior incarnations, resulting in more of a showcase of the school's efforts to support the local economy and community through food purchasing. Rabinowitz said he and students worked together to serve as much local food as possible for the event. Eggs came from the Blue Pepper Farm in Jay. Yogurt came from the North Country Creamery in Keeseville. And the rhubarb and maple syrup? It came from the school's own farm.

As part of the Pancake Breakfast, students also sold plants harvested at the school as part of the Edible Schoolyard program Rabinowitz instructs. Six weeks ago, students planted lavender, violas, tomatoes and basil. The week before the event, students went into the school's greenhouse and transplanted the plants into pots for the sale to benefit the school, the Lake Placid food pantry and to pay for bees to pollinate the farm.

One of the students selling the plants was Frank, a young sixth grader from China who just relocated to board at the school in January. He bounced around with energy, asking passers-by - some parents - if they were interested in purchasing compost. With scenes like this, the day had the feel of a reunion at the end of a summer camp.

Rabinowitz concurred, equating the feel of life at North Country School to "school with summer camp in the morning.

"That's the best way to describe this place, I find, when I meet people who aren't used to it," he said.

As morning became afternoon, the 55 North Country School students who manned the different events at the Pancake Breakfast with the ring of a meal bell convened together for a communal family-style lunch. It was a room full of confident, self-assured middle-school aged kids. And at the end of another successful Pancake Breakfast, Rabinowitz and Carter were most proud of the fearlessness their students display on a regular basis.

"Just being at this age and being away from your parents does require a certain amount of self confidence and self sufficiency," Carter said, "but I think that we do a good job of nurturing that here by giving kids responsibility.

"And as adults in this community, we are always encouraging students to try something new with the understanding that this will be done in a safe environment and only so fast as you are comfortable. But push yourself a little bit and you will find that you are capable of doing things you didn't know were possible."

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