ROCHESTER, Minn. — Sam Thomas suffered from crippling panic attacks.
The attacks were so severe that Thomas would miss weeks of school at a time. Big groups terrified him. And the more school he missed, the worse the attacks got when another school day approached, creating a cycle that only got worse.
By the time he agreed to an interview with Jay Martini, Rochester Off-Campus Charter High School’s administrator, Thomas was largely a prisoner in his own house, living a cramped existence in his mom’s basement. When Thomas’ mom told Martini she was uncertain she could deliver her son to school every day, Martini said that was fine.
“I said, ‘When he gets here, we’ll deal with it,’” Martini said.
But just walking through the school door wasn’t easy for Thomas. Some days, Thomas’ aunt would drive Thomas to school, only to get to the school’s parking lot before turning around and driving him back home. Other times, they would get to the parking lot, but Thomas wouldn’t budge from the car. Martini would stroll out to the car and lean in, while Thomas sat inside.
“We would chit-chat,” Martini recalled. “And his aunt would say, ‘he’s not going to come in today.’ And I’d say, ‘that’s cool. Maybe see you tomorrow, buddy.’ ”
On those days when Thomas did get inside the school, he would take refuge in Martini’s office. For days, Thomas would read a book in his office, while Martini worked at his desk. When Martini casually suggested that the two make a trip to the hallway together, Thomas protested that he wasn’t ready.
But what started out as baby steps turned into strides. Thomas’ fears began to wane. He began to get comfortable going to class. In ROC’s recovery group, Thomas speaks in an unhesitant, soft, even voice. Recently, Thomas seemed to achieve the improbable, playing guitar before a school-wide assembly as an accompaniment to a group of singers.
Thomas is convinced that ROC was the key to his recovery, the Post-Bulletin reported. Without its patient handling of his fears, he would still be living in his mom’s basement, he said.
“I could not function in the real world,” Thomas said. “(ROC) gave me an opportunity to kind of learn, to do stuff that’s required to be a person.”
When people talk about ROC, which is marking its 20th anniversary, they talk about the culture. But it’s easier said than described. When students show up at ROC’s doors for the first time, they may be homeless or from broken homes, suffering from drug addiction or battling depression.
ROC’s goal: To try to a create a space for students to get well and to heal. Through some process made up of patience and acceptance, problem-solving, counseling and intervention, students are expected to find balance between dealing with their problems and being a student.
“The promise we both make is: I will graduate your arse, but you got to do what you need to do,” Martini said.
Past students come to remember the culture so fondly that they can’t help but pop back in every so often. Such was the case of Kyle Moe recently, who attended ROC for awhile before losing his spot because of what he concedes were some bad choices. Eventually, though, he went on to get his GED.
“I think a lot of kids probably came from where I came from,” Moe said. “Like their whole life, they feel like they weren’t accepted anywhere, even in their own family, and just wanted to come here. It’s so much different here.”
That tone and culture is set by Martini, who founded the school 20 years ago. A social worker by training, Martini may be the state’s only school administrator without the credentials of formal training. Though possessing the title, Martini makes clear he has a “wonderful academic dean” who oversees the school’s faculty.
Students say one thing they appreciate about Martini is the sense he creates that students and staff are in all in this together. He is one of them, while at the same also creating the expectation that “you have your s— together,” said one student.
“He kind of takes on the figure in your life that you need the most,” said 17-year-old student Alyssa Bartel. “I’ve never really had anybody like that I can go to and talk to.”
Martini say he approaches the job with a simple philosophy, and it starts by recognizing that he doesn’t have all the answers.
“I don’t have to have the answers,” Martini said. “I have to take the time to just pause and go, ‘well, what the hell are we going to do?’ So find the people who have the answer. I’m surrounded by 120 numb nuts. Somebody’s got to know.”
Martini sets out to know to know each of his students as individuals, a process that begins when Martini sits down with a student for that first interview.
Martini takes notes while the student talks. Although ROC is a publicly funded school and is required by law to accept all comers, the school caps enrollment at about 120 students. That means that if there is a backlog of students waiting to get in – and there usually is – there is no guarantee of admission. Thus a kids’ first sit-down with Martini has the feel of a job interview. Not just anybody gets into ROC.
“The first thing (I want to know) is, where have you been? And why hasn’t it worked? What have you tried? Why do you think this place will work?” Martini said.
ROC student Nicole Thorson recalled that first interview. The 16-year-old, a former John Marshall High School student, recalled how nervous she was on that first meeting.
“I was talking to Jay, and I was like using these big words that I don’t know how to use, and he’s like looking at me. And I’m going on about everything, and he says, ‘well, you can slow down now. You don’t have to get that far into details,’ ” Thorson said.
During the interview, Martini has a checklist of criteria and questions he asks. How far is the student behind in credits? How poorly are they performing on standardized tests? Are they pregnant or a teen parent? Have they been diagnosed with a mental illness or as chemically dependent? Have they been expelled from their home school?
Generally, the more baggage a kid has, the greater the chance he or she will be accepted into ROC.
“During the conversation, I’m taking notes as to how this kid fits (the school’s criteria),” Martini said. “A kid who says, ‘I think it would be cool to go to ROC.’ By law I take their app. But unless nobody shows up, that punkin’ isn’t getting in. It’s just not going to happen.”
In its 20 years, an estimated 400 to 500 students have graduated from ROC. ROC graduates have gone on to become accountants and teachers, chefs, artists and musicians, plumbers, electricians and carpenters. But not all the outcomes have been positive, given the kind of student ROC serves, often existing on knife’s edge of uncertainty. Seven to eight graduates ended up committing suicide.
Many of ROC’s graduates go on to Rochester Community and Technical College, which also serves as the charter school’s authorizer. Eric Sime, RCTC’s liaison to ROC, said ROC students stand out because of their proud sense of identification with the school.
“I’ve noticed that when they come here for a visit to check us out, they always tell us that they are students of ROC,” Sime said. “They invested in ROC, because ROC invested in them.”
Three years ago, ROC’s mission of serving the area’s most vulnerable students found itself on a collision course with the state’s accountability movement. The school was placed on the state’s list of Persistently Low Achieving schools for its low scores on standardized tests and graduation rate. The state’s message: Improve or we will restructure your school by changing principals or closing its doors.
ROC students do not perform well on standardized tests relative to the state. In 2013, for example, ROC students scored a proficiency rate of 26.7 percent in science, 33.3 percent in reading and 4.8 percent in math. That compares to the state’s proficiency rates of 52.1 percent in science, 57.1 percent in reading and 61.2 percent in math.
Martini said he never disputed the state’s conclusions about test scores or graduation rates. The school did need to get better in those areas. But Martini says his argument to state officials was that the state was looking to sanction ROC for carrying out the mission for which it was created: To serve the area’s most vulnerable and at-risk youth, students who invariably see ROC as the school of last resort.
“You’re looking to punish us for reasons that when I handed you my charter to be approved, you accepted as a criteria for opening the school,” Martini said. “And now you’re telling me, because I serve those kids, you’re going to take my job or close my school. Do you find that a bit odd?”
Fortunately, Martini had some contacts in state government. He knew then state education commissioner Alice Seagren. He also had a stalwart backer in Rep. Carlos Mariani, a Democrat from St. Paul.
In a meeting with a subcommittee, Martini told legislators there was a simple fix for the problem: He could stop admitting the kids “on his list, but then I’m not being true to my charter.”
The crisis reached a head in the spring of 2010. Each of the nearly 30 schools on the state’s PLA list were required to undergo a quality review. A team from Cambridge, England, was hired to evaluate each of the schools. In spring 2010, two English reviewers in pinstripes, briefcases in hand, arrived at ROC for a two-day visit. They interviewed staff, parents and students. They sat in classes. They explored pretty much every nook and cranny of the school.
“I was just going, ‘dude, I hope to god this works,’ ” Martini said.
In a final report issued by the Cambridge group, ROC was one of only two schools to receive strong reviews. The school cited four areas for improvement. It suggested, for instance, that teachers talk less and students take more responsibility for their learning. Lesson plans also needed to clearly state what students with different abilities were expected to learn, it stated.
But in the main, the report praised ROC for fulfilling its mission of giving troubled students a second chance.
“The school has been highly successful in giving disaffected students a second chance, in turning around their lives and helping them to become respectable and responsible adults,” the Cambridge team said. “Such a track record is clear evidence of the school’s capacity to carry on doing a first-rate job for these students.”