'A special gem': Current and former students react to the forthcoming closure of Friedell Middle School
Between the dedicated teachers, small class sizes and academically driven peers, Friedell Middle School cultivated an environment that helped students flourish.
When Zach Spindler-Krage looks back on his time at Friedell Middle School, he remembers the little things that made his experience special.
He recalls walking through the parking lots of Denny’s and the neighboring hotel so he could go to PE class on a patch of grass in the nearby fairgrounds. He recalls odors from the Seneca Foods factory wafting through.
“We’d be covering our noses because of how bad Seneca smelled. The train tracks were right next to us, so trains would always come past and we couldn’t hear anything,” Spindler-Krage said. “It’s such an unassuming school, you have all these unique experiences.”
Like everyone else who went to Friedell, Spindler-Krage was there by choice. He was one of the lucky ones who made it past the lottery system and waiting lists and into the districtwide opt-in school.
Now a high school senior, he’s several years removed from his time at Friedell. Yet, he’s one of the many former students who look back on their experience in the small, “unassuming school” with a sense of gratitude. For those families who still attend Friedell, that gratitude is mixed with loss and disappointment as they prepare for the end of an era.
The Rochester School Board recently voted to close Friedell Middle School at the end of the 2021-22 year, repurposing the building for other district needs. The decision came after months of discussions packed with questions about costs, equity, waiting lists, test scores and other metrics.
Friedell serves two purposes. It houses a highly gifted program, but it's also open to mainstream students looking for a smaller option than other middle schools can offer.
When Adam McPhail, another high school senior who went to Friedell, heard that the school was scheduled for closure, he thought something “truly special to RPS” was lost.
Looking back, he talked about the teachers going out of their way to create a unique culture in the school. He spoke about how they found ways to influence student leaders, which helped influence the student body overall.
“They were relentless in their efforts to make coming to school exciting and fun,” McPhail said. “Everything I’m proud of myself (for) today, I have because of Friedell.”
There was one class where they would learn about historical events on their corresponding dates, among them the Kent State protests, Cambodian genocide, and others.
Like Spindler-Krage, McPhail remembers the little things, like staff reading inspirational quotes from the book “Wonder” over the PA system. The book follows a boy named Auggie who has a disability and is trying to fit in at a new middle school.
The district isn’t getting rid of its highly gifted program. Rather, it’s working on establishing the program in each of its other middle schools.
Still, some question whether the district will be able to replicate Friedell's unique atmosphere elsewhere.
“Being that it was a choice school, there was a certain feeling that all the students shared that everybody wanted to be there,” Spindler-Krage said. “I think it really did help our education knowing that everyone around us made a conscious choice to seek out this other type of path and this other school.”
He also credits the small-school atmosphere, a recurring theme among those who attended the school.
He even attributes his academic turnaround to it. Before Friedell, he didn’t like school and didn’t consider himself an especially good student. By the time he left middle school, it was a different story.
“I attribute a lot of my success in school to Friedell,” Spindler-Krage said. “Leaving Friedell, I cared a lot about school — sometimes maybe too much, you could say.”
Naomi Kennel saw both sides of Friedell. For her first two years, she was in the mainstream program. By her third year, her name hit the right slot on the waiting list and she entered the highly gifted program.
Although the different programs resulted in different social groups, Kennel said they shared the same support.
“The academics — yes, they were different, but both programs have the same feel,” she said. “The teachers are looking out for you.”
The financial cost of keeping Friedell open wasn’t the school's only criticism. Demographically, it doesn't reflect the diversity found in the district as a whole. In a push to increase the level of equity in the district, there were some who thought it best to close Friedell.
Minority students at Friedell comprised 31% of the student population at the start of 2019. Districtwide, that number was 10 points higher. Students eligible for free-or-reduced lunch made up 14.5% of the population at Friedell during 2019-20. Districtwide, that number was more than twice as high, at more than 30%.
School Board member Cathy Nathan was one of the initial critics of closing the school, saying there should be a way to open it up to more diversity. She ultimately voted to close Friedell, saying she didn’t know how to get around the perception that it was an unfair system.
While disappointed about the school’s forthcoming closure, Kennel’s mother, Betty, can understand the problems associated with underrepresentation.
“I do agree that there absolutely needs to be more diversity,” Betty Kennel said before the School Board voted to close the school. “If you have a different ethnic background … maybe you don’t see people that look like you in that school, so why would you want to go?”
Unlike Spindler-Krage, McPhail and Naomi Kennel, there are students at Friedell who won’t be able to attend the school for all their middle school years. This year’s sixth-graders will have to switch to another middle school for a year once Friedell closes, assuming they don’t transfer sooner.
Katie and Jason Post have found themselves in that position, since one of their children, William, is a sixth-grader at Friedell.
“I don’t really want to go to Willow, but it is what it is,” William said, referring to Willow Creek Middle School.
Katie Post said she and Jason saw “rapid growth” when their eighth-grader, Ethan, started going to Friedell. With middle school being a time when everyone is trying to fit in with everyone else, she said Friedell cultivated an environment where it was OK to be focused, where being academically driven was encouraged.
But Katie doesn’t want to disparage the rest of the district. She said she believes all the teachers and schools in Rochester do a good job. She said opportunities will remain for the students even after Friedell closes.
That being said, she also acknowledged that the closure will be a loss for the community.
“This has been sort of a special gem that Rochester has had,” she said. “I’m disappointed to see it go away.”