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New Rochester charter school approved

Melanie Flaherty

A new Rochester charter school is slated to open this fall.

Supporters of Rochester Beacon Academy were notified Thursday that their long-delayed application to open a new charter school had been accepted by the Minnesota Department of Education.The state's sign-off was the culmination of a nearly four-year effort to open a school geared toward students who struggle in traditional classroom settings.

"I'm extremely excited," said Melanie Flaherty, the school's founder. "I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little anxious. Everything that we've visualized and conceptualized now needs to be brought to life."

Officials say Beacon will open as a school serving about 100 students in grades six through 10.The focus will be on providing more individualized attention, with 15 students per classroom and a minimum of one teacher and two paraprofessionals per class. The plan is to expand the school by a grade each year until it offers grades six to 12.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are granted greater freedom and flexibility in their operations, in return for meeting specific accountability goals and targets. State law requires charter schools to be paired with an authorizer, whose role is to monitor and hold schools accountable for their financial and academic performance. Beacon's authorizer is the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools.


Currently, 150 charter schools serve about 43,000 students across the state. There are three in the Rochester area — Rochester STEM Academy, Rochester Off-Campus Charter High and Rochester Math and Science Academy.

Securing state approval was viewed as the biggest hurdle that Beacon officials faced. Without it, the school couldn't apply for grant dollars that would help fund the school. Officials had hoped to wind up the review process by the end of January. But as MDE continued to identify deficiencies in the application and the review process stretched into March, officials say the wait took its toll on emotions and morale.

"This was like a shot in the arm," Flaherty said when news of the approval reached her. "I feel like I could go for another four years."

State officials say Rochester Beacon is one of 15 new charter schools approved by the state to open over the next two years. But coming up with an exact number of new charter schools opening this fall won't be known until early summer, "when authorizers and charter school boards determine if a new school is poised for a successful opening," said Cindy Murphy, director of MDE's charter schools program.

"It is not uncommon for a new school's opening to be postponed until the next year if key ready-to-open factors are not in place," Murphy said in an email, citing a lack of minimum enrollment or a facility as reasons some charter schools choose to delay opening.

Flaherty said the Beacon board is determined to open this fall but acknowledged that a ton of work needs to be completed between now and the school's opening. That includes raising funds, hiring an executive director and securing a site for the new school.

"We've made it over the biggest hurdle," Flaherty said. "It would take some national crisis for us to not open now."

Flaherty's efforts to open a new school were inspired by her own children, Sean, 11, and Grace, 12. Sean has high-end autism, and Grace has Mosaic Down Syndrome. While the push toward mainstreaming students with disabilities has been a hallmark of public schools, parents such as Flaherty say the one-size-fits-all nature of public education often serves to isolate them instead.


The vision for Beacon Academy has evolved over time. The school was originally viewed as one that would serve students with autism, but over time, it expanded to encompass all students who could benefit from small class sizes and individualized attention.

"My own children is obviously my No. 1 motivation, but knowing that my story is one of many is really what keeps me going," Flaherty said.

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