Winona Area Publics Schools (WAPS) is eyeing Rollingstone Community School for designation as a new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) school. STEM is a learning system that focuses on math, science, and open-ended student inquiry. A STEM program at Jefferson Elementary is in its second year and has created a waiting list for enrollment at the school.
The board discussed the idea of adding STEM to the Rollingstone school last Thursday and will decide whether to conduct a study of the concept at upcoming meetings. What exactly the study would entail remains to be determined, but several board members agreed that surveying community support for the idea was important.
Board member Steve Schild was a vocal proponent of seeking community input, but pointed out that it is not that simple. Who do you survey? Schild asked. The Rollingstone community or the whole district?
The question is indicative of a divide on the issue among board members. Schild said the Rollingstone school does not belong to the Rollingstone community anymore than Madison Elementary School belongs to the adjacent neighborhood.
However, the Rollingstone school ownership is different than other district buildings. Built in 1995, Rollingstone Community School required legislative approval for an arrangement in which the city of Rollingstone bonded for the building, the district pays the bonds, the city pays an annual lease to use space there for city offices, and the school district will receive the title for the building when the bonds are paid off in 2016. The district currently spends about $200,000 annually on the bonds for the building. WAPS Financial Affairs Director Dan Pyan has speculated in the past that the arrangement with the city of Rollingstone may have been a way to avoid putting the $2.24 million spending issue on the ballot in the form of a referendum vote.
“I think this should be part of a bigger conversation about facilities,” Schild continued. The best way to proceed, he continued, is to engage residents of the entire district about facilities and enrollment, then survey support for specific academic programs such as STEM.
At previous meetings, Schild suggested that the district might be a better steward of education dollars if it considered reducing the number of buildings that it operates. He also asked if making Rollingstone a STEM school was “an attempt to save [the school]” by bolstering enrollment. Rollingstone Community School currently has fewer than 70 students.
At the last meeting, board member Jeanne Nelson said of adding STEM at the Rollingstone school, “I simply want to give the best education for our students that we can. If it does mean that the enrollment increases in Rollingstone, that it stabilizes, that it can maybe draw some of the kids that we lost to Lewiston, that it can draw them back, I think that is another important reason [to do it].”
Nelson added that Ridgeway Community School is a prime example of what happens when you close a rural school — students leave the district.
Rollingstone not ready?
Rollingstone Community School Principal Jack Kaehler addressed the board, saying that while certain aspects of STEM teaching are already a part of Rollingstone Community School, the school needs another year to solidify its new iPad program before taking on another new initiative. “I just wouldn’t want too much on [teachers’] plates that would deter from what they’re doing,” he said. He added that the school is open to the idea in the future.
Jefferson Elementary School Principal Mathew Nelson advised the board that becoming a STEM “doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process. It’s a big commitment.”
Jeanne Nelson proposed implementing STEM at Rollingstone in phases. Board chair Mohamed Elhindi framed the discussion as being about the possibility of starting STEM at Rollingstone in the next few years, not immediately. Most other members of the board voiced support for considering some form of expanded STEM, though Ben Barrato commented, “We have to remember that there are a lot of good things going on in this district now, and we’d better not bite off too much too soon.”