Rosa Parks Charter High School has been in the headwinds of change for the last couple years.
Two years ago, the school changed its name from Rochester Off-Campus to Rosa Parks. Last year, the founder and only administrator the high school has ever known, Jay Martini, retired. In the midst of these changes, the school adopted a new model of teaching students called “teacher-powered” or “project-based” learning.
More signs of change were evident Wednesday as Rosa Parks students and staff continued the process of moving into their new home at 2450 Marion Road SE. The building, formerly occupied by Western Digital, has been vacant since the U.S. Highway 52 project more than a decade ago.
For more than a decade, home for Rosa Parks had been a building at 2364 Valleyhigh Drive NW, a structure specifically built for the school by Benike Construction. The building is now leased by YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities/YMCA Rochester, which plans to make it an early learning center.
Many of the changes at Rosa Parks are interconnected, said Amy Mullen, the school’s language arts teacher. Under Martini, teachers at Rosa Parks had full autonomy over their classrooms. So when he stepped down, instead of hiring a replacement, the staff decided to adopt a model that put the teachers in charge.
Mullen described teacher-powered schools as a growing movement, particularly in Minnesota. Avalon High School in the Twin Cities and Minnesota New Country are examples of schools controlled by teaching staff.
“It means that we get to make the decisions that directly affect our students and their learning,” Mullen said. “If we have a student who might be having a rough time, we can meet as staff and decide together what needs to be done to make it a better learning environment.”
The move to the new location made sense, Mullen said, because it offered more open space than the old school for project-based learning. The school would been looking at expensive renovations if Rosa Parks had stayed at its old location.
Rosa Parks has faced declining enrollment for the last several years. From a peak of about 135 students, it now serves about 60 students.
A big reason for that decline is that Rosa Parks finds itself in a different environment from the days when it opened as Rochester’s first charter school 25 years ago. The competition for students is more intense. Both Beacon Academy, another charter school, and Rochester Public School’s Alternative Learning Center, serve students who struggle in more traditional learning environments.
“We had to cut our budget, cut staff members, and we like to keep our classes very small,” Mullen said. “Fifteen students is the most we would like in a class.”
The school is looking at the possibility of adding seventh and eighth grades in the future. “We’ve seen a big need for that,” she said.
Mullen said the excitement surrounding a new school year, combined with occupying and personalizing a new school, has students “super-excited.”
“The students seemed to be responsive to being out here. They’ve really taken ownership of the building,” Mullen said.