Janesville's Rock University High School challenges students with a collegiate atmosphere

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Tuesday, May 9, 2017

JANESVILLE—This spring, Janesville School Board candidates found themselves facing an opponent with inside knowledge.

Thomas Murphy, a senior at Rock University High School, ran for a school board seat against a bunch of adults with more money, more clout and more experience in grown-up situations.

Murphy had attended school board meeting for more than a year, sitting through lengthy discussions of school finances, squabbles over teacher-pupil ratios, and the safety hints and leadership messages that start every meeting.

As a result, he did well in debates, demonstrating he understood complex issues such as drug use, school funding and, of course, programs for students who don't quite fit the mold. He didn't win a school board seat, but he could have.

Who is this young man?

Murphy is an ordinary kid who found his niche at Rock University High School.

The high school opened in 2005 as the Janesville Academy for International Studies. A half-day program, it was designed for students who were interested in global studies and foreign languages.

Eventually, students in the program began to ask, “Why can't school always be like this?” The academy's board took action.

In 2014, the program evolved into a charter school for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Initially, it was housed at UW-Rock County. This year, it moved to Blackhawk Technical College, where it has been warmly embraced by the college's administration.

Angie Kerr, Rock University dean of students and math teacher, said the misconception about Rock University is that it's only for “super smart” kids.

Prospective students should be “academically competent,” said Lisa Peterson, Janesville School District coordinator for charter school development.

The school focuses on STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art and math—in a way that relies on “inquiry-based learning that involves students in original research, critical thinking and problem-solving,” the school website says.

That interdisciplinary style is evident in the course catalog. Classes include Art and Business, Critical Issues Forum, Novel Studies, Service Learning and Great World Texts, a course that connects high school students across the state to scholars at UW-Madison.

Service Learning requires students to do 40-hour independent service projects.

Students can also take Advanced Placement courses or music classes at Craig, Parker or Blackhawk Technical College.

Some students participate in concert band, jazz band or chamber orchestra at UW-Rock County.

The atmosphere is more like college, and students must be able to work independently.

During their senior year, students do a capstone project, which designed to showcase their knowledge on a particular topic using the interdisciplinary approach.

The complexity of the curriculum attracted Murphy.

“The curriculum at (traditional) high school was not very engaging,” he said. “It was multiple choice, and I didn't see the point of doing the work if I was going to ace the test just by listening in class.”

Before picking Rock University, he and his parents met with Peterson.

“We had a meeting to discuss what sort of options might be suited for me,” Murphy said. “The most amazing part of the meeting was that when she was talking about Rock University, she saw my eyes light up. She knew right away it would be a good fit.”

For his service project, he worked on political campaigns, and he's now interested in pursuing a degree in public administration.

As for sitting through all those school board meetings, he enjoys it.

“I like how many small pieces of legislation, of policy, there are. They all have their own purpose, and they're put together to make a complete system that works,” Murphy said. “It's almost like poetry.”

Peterson described the students at Rock University as “old souls,” the kind of young people who find the drama, noise and overwhelming energy of traditional high school too much.

Some of them already have entered the adult world.

Kai Heller is graduating this year. She already has her basic certified nursing assistant certificate and works at Cedar Crest.

Along with finishing her classes at Rock University, she is taking more classes at Blackhawk Technical College. After getting her advanced certified nursing assistant degree, she plans to work and save money so she can eventually attend UW-Madison.

Heller's life hasn't been easy.

About a year ago, her family lost their home. Her parents now live in a motel, and Heller lives with her sister.

Her mother has suffered from health problems, and keeping an eye on Mom is part of Heller's life.

During her family crisis, Heller told her teacher, “I just need some time to deal with this right now.”

Her teachers granted her request and gave her a leave of absence.

Who is this young woman?

She started at a traditional high school and found the bullying unbearable. From there, she went to the alternative high school at Rock River Charter School. After blowing through the available coursework, her teachers suggested Rock University High School.

There she found a place to pursue her passions—and fulfill her family responsibilities.

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