by ALEXANDRA RETTER
J.R. Larkie has felt a buzz around Rollingstone since the state of Minnesota recently approved the opening of a charter elementary school in the town’s community school building. Students could be attending classes there as soon as fall 2022. The school will be housed at the former site of Rollingstone Elementary School, which Winona Area Public Schools closed in 2018.
“The school in Rollingstone was kind of a hub. It was the heartbeat. When that got taken away, it hurt a lot of people,” Larkie, one of the new school’s organizers, said. “But we never gave up on that school. It’s taken three years to get it back to a school … And it’s taken a lot of hard work. But it’s been exciting the last few days, just being able to tell folks we’ve been approved.”
After years spent working toward the approval, Larkie and school founders were excited to put the words “We’re back” on the sign in front of the school.
Paul Seppa, another school organizer, was both excited and relieved. “And we realize as a group, it’s going to be a fair amount of work to get it going,” Seppa said.
Seppa agreed that the school is a hub for the community. “When my children went through there, retired people would come into the school and be reading buddies with the students,” he said. “So it gave the town an additional purpose and cohesiveness.”
Having received approval from the state, school organizers plan to establish a school board and apply for grants to purchase necessary items, such as desks. Organizers also plan to work on hiring staff members so curriculum development can begin.
Those who have worked on founding the school over the past few years would like the curriculum to center on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), Larkie and Seppa said. They also wish for the curriculum to focus on providing students opportunities to learn by completing larger projects. Additionally, they want students to learn through experiences in the areas surrounding the school, which include a pond, prairie grass, trail and garden. “When Rollingstone was open, the teachers took advantage of that,” Seppa said. Organizers would like some classrooms or subjects to be taught in a multi-age way, as well, meaning students in various adjacent grades could learn together at the same time.
School founders are sorting through the timeline for hiring staff members. A lead teacher may be hired about a year from now or a bit earlier, Seppa said, with other teachers being brought on by next summer to allow time for planning before the school year. He would like to have a minimum of three teachers on staff, though that number will depend on enrollment, he continued.
In a shift from the typical organization of schools, Rollingstone Community School may not necessarily have administrators, Larkie and Seppa said. Instead of a principal, there would be a lead teacher, Seppa said. The idea of having a teacher committee or more senior teachers leading has also been discussed, Larkie said. “We’re really hoping to do something kind of a little bit different than the norm, kind of thinking outside the box,” he said. “As we know, education and society as a whole is always changing. And we don’t want to just do something because that’s how it’s always been done.” He added, “If you give teachers a voice, they’re going to tell you what they need and what the kids need to be successful.”
As school founders look ahead to the beginning of classes, they hope about 50 students will attend in the first year. They are also continuing to consider what the top elementary grade they serve will be. “I hope it grows over a few years and gets over 100 students,” Seppa said. Larkie said he wants the school to perform academically at the level it did prior to closing in 2018 and serve as a gathering place for the community. “I want it to be warm and inviting. And I want it to be somewhere where kids and community members and faculty, it’s like a second home, they look forward to going there,” he said.