WINNEBAGO — With Winnebago Elementary closing its doors to students in just a few weeks, a group of residents is exploring the possibility of opening a private classical school to take its place.
The Winnebago Education Task Force represents a group of 20 to 30 Winnebago-area community members with the stated goal of providing high-quality education to local children. It also seeks to keep the town an attractive locale for young parents, said task force member and First Financial Bank President Bill Erickson.
Which is why it's teaming up with Genesis Classical Academy, a locally based nonprofit, to survey area residents about whether they'd be interested in sending their kids to a Winnebago-based private school instead of packing them onto buses bound for Blue Earth or Maple River.
“Winnebago is a town of 1,400 people," Erickson said. "We have an active Main Street. We're not drying up and blowing away. If you look demographically, it's unusual for a town that size not to have a school.”
This isn't the group's first attempt at opening its own institution. In 2008, the task force took a serious look at starting a charter school in Winnebago but was eventually forced to abandon the plan due to a series of legislative changes that prevented it from doing so.
Several years later, Genesis Classical Academy got its start. A completely separate entity, its board is made up of Mankato-area residents interested in opening a private classical school.
Dave Kruse, a Mankato businessman who recently ran for a seat in the House, has been associated with the academy and on his resume lists himself as one of its board members.
Renee Doyle, another of its members, is also president of Child Protection League Action. She lives in Amboy and saw what happened when its elementary school closed. It's not the only city to suffer in the face of consolidations, she said.
"You look at the closing school in Winnebago and you look at the whole area around Winnebago, and it's kind of like a desert just calling out for a school," she said.
Though Genesis Academy formed in 2012, its board has been dormant for much of the last year, she said. After doing research into what it would take to start a classical school, it took a step back, waiting for the right community to launch it in.
Then, came Winnebago.
“Our school is not a result of (the elementary school closing)," Doyle said. "That just is another factor that makes it even more desirable. We've been looking at this community for some time now."
The school Genesis wants to open would have a strong Christian emphasis but would be nondenominational. It promises to offer students a classical education, focused on grammar, logic and rhetoric.
After the trivium model, lessons would correspond to three stages of development. Students in grades 1-4 come away with a basic knowledge of language, science and math. In grades 5-8, they begin to develop basic reasoning skills. And in grades 9-12, they learn how to express what they have learned and put their skills into practice.
Many schools, both public and private, offer education based on those concepts. The Association of Classical and Christian Schools consists of 236 schools with more than 38,000 students, many of whom go on to graduate from prestigious colleges or universities. There are several schools from the association in Minnesota, including the Agape Christi Academy in Eden Prairie, the Liberty Classical Academy in White Bear Lake and the Schaeffer Academy in Rochester.
Doyle said community members as well as parents would be heavily involved in the running of the school. Members of Genesis' founding board plan on stepping down to make way for local residents, and scholarships would likely be available to students, opening it up to children of all backgrounds.
Of course, all that depends on whether the school actually opens. Its launch will depend on the results of the community survey, which was mailed out to all area residents just this week.
The task force hopes to have them all back by May 1, at which point it will sit down with Genesis and decide whether or not the model is feasible.
“We could be operational by fall," Doyle said. "That is the plan, IF we can get the demographic. If the support is in place."
Until Genesis is holding off on any other planning. The group does not yet have a building in mind for the school, and is holding off on hiring teachers.
Nevertheless, Doyle couldn't be more excited about the possibility of bringing a classical academy to Winnebago. She has grandchildren in the area and thinks the school would be a community jewel.
"Can everyone home school?" she said. "No. But if you want a different kind of education, something that's individualized for your child … this is it for you. This is ideal. Sometimes where you're dealing with the school district level, then you're dealing with the state level, then you're dealing with the federal level ... You get to where you feel like you don't have control anymore. This is bottom-up education.”