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Rochester charter school succeeds on a shoestring
By Laurel Druley
Minnesota Public Radio
December 28, 2001
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While several school districts around the state are spending a lot of energy right now tightening belts, charter schools are unfazed. They're already working with modest budgets. In the last year, a handful of charter schools have been shut down because of criticism over how they spend their money. But administrators at a Rochester charter school say their school should be a role model to others.

Rochester Off Campus
Zachary Brund, Mika Waldron, ROC director Jay Martini, and Jennifer Solberg (left to right). ROC was formed when Rochester Public School administrators enforced a zero-tolerance policy in the early '90s. Educators expelled all students involved with drugs or gangs. Since then the program has expanded to include students who need extra attention.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

Zachary Brund, 17, came to Rochester Off Campus - or ROC -after he went through alcohol treatment and got sober. He says at ROC kids feel respected and trust the teachers.

"They're your teachers, but they have parental qualities that a lot of kids don't get anywhere else. They make you want to do good," Brund says.

Almost every wall at ROC has a mural. The colors in the student artwork match some of the kids' hair. Jennifer Solberg points to her pink hair and says, at ROC she's not afraid to be herself.

"I'm much more comfortable with what I wear now. I'm not following the sheep," says Solberg.

Brund and Solberg go to class with 60 other students. Another 30 students attend night classes.

ROC was formed six years ago when Rochester Public Schools enforced a zero-tolerance rule. The district administrators kicked out all the students involved with gangs. ROC was founded as an alternative - a place for those kids to go.

The Rochester Off Campus school is filled with colorful murals painted by its students. This is one example.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

ROC started as a cooperative effort with Rochester Public Schools, and became an independent charter school with its own district. Because the school's been so successful with kids who need special attention, now there's even a waiting list.

"Rochester has so many students, and Rochester's population is so diverse in terms of skill level and in terms of baggage kids bring," says Jay Martini, director and co-founder of ROC. "It is impossible for any school in the state to say they address all the needs of all the students. What ROC has tried to do is be another item on the education menu."

For one reason or another, the students at ROC need more attention. Many of the students are abused, homeless, or drug addicts. The program works because they keep it small. Martini says ROC's staff and students make the school a success. That success can affect entire families.

"When a mom sits in a conference and tears up because this is the first time in (her) son's life that she's heard something positive about (her) son or daughter - that's a joy," Martini says.

ROC's not only had success with its students, but also with its bottom line.

Mika Waldron
ROC student Mika Waldron says he likes ROC because he can relate with all the other students. He also says he respects and trusts his teachers.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

Martini calls a charter school budget bare-bones. He says he furnished his office for $40. To save money, he buys plastic lawn furniture off-season for classrooms. Each faculty member wears a second or third hat. The math teacher, for example, is also in charge of transportation and staff development.

ROC is funded like other public schools. It can apply for state money earmarked for programs like free and reduced lunches and special education. It can't get any additional money from local taxpayers, but it can get extra money from grants. ROC is still working off a start-up grant.

Without the grant, ROC spends about $4,500 per pupil. The state average is about $6,000. When Martini looks around at the traditional public schools making severe budget cuts, he says it's sad.

"School districts didn't get into the state they're in maliciously, nor with intent," says Martini. "They got into the position at whims of the Legislature, and governors past and present. We're living with decisions that weren't made yesterday. We're living with decisions that were made a while back."

Martini is unwilling to criticize his public school colleagues. But he acknowledges that traditional public school budgets do have overhead that can be cut. He says at ROC when they talk about overhead, they're talking about the roof.

More Information
  • Minnesota Association of Charter Schools