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Two charter schools to undergo $15.5 million renovation

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The $15.5 million renovation and expansion of Rochester STEM Academy and Rochester Math and Science Academy.
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Two of Rochester’s biggest charter schools, Rochester Math and Science Academy and Rochester STEM Academy, are poised to undergo a combined $15.5 million renovation and expansion.

Both schools are housed at what once was the First Baptist Church at 415 16th St. SW. School leaders say the renovation is being driven both by the need to modernize the building and to handle anticipated enrollment growth.

Both schools have grown since their founding (the high school in 2011, the K-8 school in 2003), having to turn away students due to space constraints.

The math and science academy is a K-8 school that serves about 347 students and has a 60-student waiting list, said school principal Abdulkadir Abdalla. The new classrooms will allow it to grow to a 500-student school.

The STEM Academy has nearly doubled in size since it opened and has about 135 students in grades 9-12.

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"It’s a big step, but the thing is, we’ve got the waiting list. We’ve got the increasing enrollment. We got Rochester growing," Brian Rossi, executive director of the STEM academy, said of the $15.5 million project. "So all this makes sense."

Rossi said the city of Rochester served as the conduit for a bond sale, which occurred last Tuesday.

Charter schools are open to all students. An estimated 90 percent of the students at the two schools are Somali-American with a smattering of students with Sudanese, Ethiopian and Kenyan backgrounds. Rochester is home to about 7,000 Somali-Americans and Somali refugees, Abdalla said.

"They are very Americanized, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents," Rossi said. "They want to be American, end of story, but they also want to be who they are."

The 25,000-square-foot expansion will include a regulation-size gymnasium. Classrooms will be built on the north end of the building and extend into the parking lot. Renovation work will simultaneously begin on the south end of the building where the high school is located.

"We’re contributing back to the community by building a gym, so that basketball, volleyball, club-run teams (can use it)," Rossi said. "It’s a public building, and we want to be used by the public."

STEM Academy classes are being held at Bear Creek Church while construction work proceeds at the high school.

Work on the K-8 school, which sits between the high school and the expansion, won’t begin until the spring when the other projects are nearing completion.

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Charter schools by law are not allowed to own their property, but they are allowed to create a nonprofit that can make such purchases. So the schools formed Rochester MSA Building Co., which plans to purchase the 13.69-acre parcel and the building for $3.6 million next week.

Abdalla cited the academic success students are having at the schools, particularly in English proficiency and math and science, as a driving factor in the burgeoning enrollment. At the high school level, an emphasis is placed on getting students into Post-Secondary Enrollment Options at Rochester Community and Technical College.

Rochester is home to four charter schools. The others are Beacon Academy and Rosa Parks. Charter schools are tuition-free, publicly funded institutions that operate with fewer regulations to allow for greater flexibility and experimentation.

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