The community of Rollingstone may be small, but it knows how to throw its weight around when it needs to get a job done. At least, that's been the case in the town's fight to bring back a school that has been shut down for the past couple years.
In 2018, Winona Area Public Schools closed its elementary schools in Rollingstone, a community of less than 700 people about 10 miles northwest of Winona. However, it didn't take long after the doors closed for a grassroots effort to get underway with the goal of bringing the school back -- this time as a charter school.
"It's really the heartbeat of our community, said J.R. Larkie. "In a small town, the school is kind of the central spot. It's where both young and old come together and learn and learn from each other."
For a little while, the group working to reinvent the school was facing an uphill battle. After closing the building, the Winona School Board placed a deed restriction on it, preventing it from being as a school again. However, that changed once an election came around and the composition of the school board changed a little bit.
"This is a case where local elections matter," said Paul Seppa, another person working on the committee to bring the school back.
In the time since the former school's closure, committee members have done their research. Advocates for the new school conducted a survey in 2019 and found that nearly 70% of the respondents "strongly agree" that Rollingstone should have its own school. and another 18% indicated they "somewhat agree."
Barbara Rahn was a teacher at the Rollingstone school from the time it opened in the mid-1990s to the time it closed. Even when the district first closed the school, she never doubted it would come back some day.
"Rollingstone has such a drive that I knew they would try and keep on trying until they succeed," Rahn said. "That's something you tell your students too: If you don't succeed the first time, change it a little and try again."
The group plans to reopen the school in the fall of 2022, with a goal of having 50 to 60 students its first year. According to the documentation the committee provided to the state, there is a need for the kind of learning the school can provide. The documentation says that the two other charter schools in the area have waiting lists and that Winona's public schools have been plagued by enrollment decreases and funding cuts.
The application to the state also says that the school will "aggressively market to low-income families in and around Winona" who might not be able to afford a private school option.
Larkie said committee members want the school to be focused around "teacher-led learning." And, they see plenty of opportunities for the teachers to use the area in creative ways. The school's campus includes both a nature trail and a community garden.
"There's a lot of different opportunities in Rollingstone and the surrounding communities to be able to get out of the classroom -- to go out and learn first-hand," Larkie said.
They also plan to incorporate STEAM education, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
Between the small class sizes and its emphasis on STEAM education, the documentation submitted to the state says the Rollingstone Community School will "outpace Winona Public Schools in overall performance," while also decreasing the gap between students receiving free and reduced lunch and the rest of the student body.
Another benefit, according to Seppa, is that having local control over the school -- rather than being subject to the oversight of Winona Area Public Schools -- will help create a sense of stability.
"I honestly think this will attract more students because they know the school board is local," Seppa said. "Every two or three years, the Winona School District would say, 'we might have to close Rollingstone.' Well, that's going to drive people away. If you don't have that cloud hanging over you, there's a longer stability. So I think in the long run, it's going to be healthier for the community and attract more students."