Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post
It feels like just yesterday my co-workers and I were making trips out to Rollingstone Community School, photographing students caring for gardens, experimenting with iPads, learning how to use a compass, and listening to tales of the old Luxembourg tradition of Saint Nicholas. Having grown up in a rural town, I can appreciate how easy it is for small towns to lose the businesses, organizations, and people that make them so special. And for a town to have its own school — few things do more to build community. Once you lose something like that it’s hard to get it back.
Three years ago, Rollingstone residents’ dreams of saving their community school were up against seemingly insurmountable odds. Despite Rollingstone’s own investment in the school, the building had been on Winona Area Public School’s (WAPS) chopping block for years, and district leaders finally cut the cord in 2018. Beyond just closing Rollingstone Community School as a public school, the district placed a restriction on the deed prohibiting it from being used as a school ever again. Things looked grim for a Rollingstone school.
But, as J.R. Larkie, one of the organizers of the effort to resurrect Rollingstone school, said, “We never gave up on that school.” The city of Rollingstone spent $125,000 to buy the building in late 2018. A big investment for a small city, the City Council went out on a limb to buy it despite the deed restriction. In a huge victory for Rollingstone school supporters and a narrow decision, the WAPS School Board voted 4-3 in 2019 to lift that restriction, against the urging of the superintendent at the time.
Rollingstone had to find another organization to sponsor its proposed charter, but after many years of hard work, organizers just received state approval for a new school in Rollingstone. (See story page 4B). As they acknowledged, now the task of running a school begins, but Rollingstone will be in good company with Ridgeway Community School, another rural school whose community refused to give up on it when it was closed as a public school.
Since the days of one-room schoolhouses, country schools have been vital gathering places for rural communities, and from card tournaments to pig-kissing bets, Ridgeway school remains that hub. Keeping small towns and small schools thriving doesn’t happen by itself. It takes communities like Rollingstone and Ridgeway that invest in themselves and that keep fighting for their community, even when the odds are steep.