Rochester Off-Campus Charter High School has never been a conventional school.
It has never had a football team, a marching band or cheerleaders, and until Saturday, it had never had a class reunion in its 22-year history.
But for many of its more than 400 graduates, what it has offered is a sense of belonging, not only to a place but also to a set of experiences. If not for ROC, many of these students who are now in their 20s and 30s will tell you, there would have been no education, little future and maybe no life.
As students years before, many had arrived at ROC's doorsteps as gang members, as educational castoffs, as victims of bullying. Many were waging mortal battles with chemical dependency or depression. And in ROC, many found a pivot in their lives that set them in a different direction.
Saturday's reunion was the first time they returned to the school as a group — as hair stylists, college students, aspiring doctors, fireplace installers, nurses and parents of growing families. Many spoke about the deep sense of appreciation they felt for the school and its staff.
"It changed my life," said Erin Drury, a Mayo Clinic nurse's aid who graduated from ROC in 2006 and was the primary organizer behind the reunion. "I had two teachers that played a ginormous role in where I am today. And it's the biggest reason I wanted to do this — to show my appreciation for how much they helped me."
Adrienne Fisk, Class of 2000, gets choked up when she recalls the day she dropped out of Century High School and eventually found her way to ROC. Fisk said she wanted to succeed in school, to make something of herself but struggled in English and reading at her previous Rochester high schools. Yet, despite being willing to meet with teachers before and after school, she could not get the individual help she needed.
"They just didn't have time for me," Fisk said.
The low point for Fisk was when she was placed in a class for disabled students. That was when she decided to drop out of school. After learning about ROC, Fisk got an interview with the school's administrator, Jay Martini, and eventually found the help she needed.
After graduating from ROC, Fisk went to cosmetology school and became a hair stylist. Then about four years ago, she returned to college. Fisk earned her two-year degree from Rochester Community and Technical College and is in her fourth year at Winona State University, majoring in law and society and, in an ironic twist, minoring in English.
"It's family. It's home," Fisk said about the attachment she feels to the school. "If you don't belong to the same class, it doesn't matter. We've all gone through similar experiences when we were younger."
Saturday's reunion was a low-key affair. Graduates roamed the hallways of the box-shaped northwest Rochester school. In one room, they pored over old yearbooks. A memory board was set up displaying pictures of graduates who had died — a reminder that some students were not able to overcome their personal demons.
Joel Daniels, who graduated in 2003, recalled arriving at ROC with "this ugly green hair." Quiet and shy, Daniels was largely an invisible presence in his previous classes at Mayo High School. By 11th grade, Daniels had all but given up on school and fallen far behind in his studies.
"I just basically didn't care anymore because I didn't feel like I had any attention from the teachers," Daniels said. "I was also really quiet in class. I felt like a teacher took that as a kind of boundary. It wasn't all their fault."
Daniels vividly remembered the first day he showed up at ROC at its old site on Civic Center Drive and 11th Avenue Northwest. There was a large group of kids standing in the parking lot, socializing. The school, which used a converted bar as a classroom, had no bell, so a staff member would stick his head out the door, tell the time, and say, "Get your butts in school." But for Daniels, the key to the school was the individual attention the teachers gave him.
"The big thing was the smaller classrooms," Daniels said, "each teacher taking time to at least kind of get to know each student. That's really what I needed."
Martini, the only administrator the school has known, was not a trained principal when he started the school but a social worker. Graduates still refer to him as "Papa Bear" and a father figure in their lives. When he and others started the school 22 years ago, they were 27 students gathered in a single room. Now, the school serves about 120 students.
Martini said he hopes ROC has been a positive force in people's lives, but "I don't want to put too much credence" that it was ROC alone, he said.
"For all of us, where we are today is the product of multiple choices, multiple forms of support we received in our life," Martini said. "I would hope (ROC) was that moment in life where they said, 'I deserve better. I am worthwhile. I am worthy of something better.'"