RIT’s K-12 University Center at the ‘heart of the community’

With the center’s move to downtown Rochester, expansion in programming also in the works

Brit Milazzo

The Annex, Building 88, was home of many offices through the Division of Academic Affairs since it was opened in 2008. Formerly housed by the K-12 University Center, it was demolished in the summer to make space for a two-story science research facility slated to open in the fall of 2024. The K-12 center moved to downtown Rochester in space occupied by RIT at the site of the historic Rochester Savings Bank, 40 Franklin St.

The K-12 University Center at Rochester Institute of Technology was located in what many colloquially called a “trailer.” At one time, it was also jokingly referred as “Drury Estates,” nicknamed for the project manager who oversaw its construction, and within its landscape, was decorated with stationary flamingos. The Annex, or Building 88, was a single-floor modular unit with 20 office spaces, a small kitchen and some storage areas. Situated adjacent to Lots R and S, and next to Brown Hall and another trailer known as Building 84, the structure was erected in 2007 and open for use in 2008, with the intent to provide temporary additional space for the Division of Academic Affairs, which the K-12 center falls under.

Despite its location, however, Executive Director Donna Burnette called K-12, “the best kept secret at RIT,” having claimed one of the largest grant portfolios at the university, with the single largest research grant in RIT history – secured in 2020 to support Army Educational Outreach Program Apprenticeships and Fellowships, which is administered by the center on behalf of the U.S. Army.

With a history dating back to at least the early 1990s, from a vision by former President Albert Simone to provide youth programming and partnerships, the K-12 University Center has grown to serve more than 5,000 youth annually with a collection of initiatives. That includes campus engagement, school partnerships, summer camp offerings, virtual and in-person enrichment programs, and various precollege and career readiness opportunities – in its mission to inspire, engage and prepare the next generation of STEAM innovators, by fostering collaborations among the university and community.

Now, it has a new home in downtown Rochester at the site of the historic Rochester Savings Bank, where RIT’s Center for Urban Entrepreneurship is also located. The move was made this summer, as its former building was demolished to make space for a $25 million, 30,000-square-foot science research facility, scheduled to open in the fall of 2024.

“As campus architect, I’m delighted we can put a real building there and give K-12 space for a real home,” Director of Planning and Design Jim Yarrington said. “It’s a happy story; it’s just taken us a number of years to get there.”

About the K-12 University Center

According to Christine M. Licata, vice provost for the Division of Academic Affairs, the K-12 idea was established in the early 1990s under the name, K-12 Partnerships. It was also referred to as the Office of K-12, RIT K-12 and the University Center for Engaging K-12, before settling on its current title as the K-12 University Center.

As it went through naming evolutions, so did its programming to expand beyond partnerships. Its branches now include:

  • Army Educational Outreach Program Apprenticeships and Fellowships
  • Camp Tiger
  • Kids on Campus, also known as Camps and Field Trips
  • Liberty Partnerships Program
  • Office of Youth Protection and Compliance
  • Rochester Prep High School partnership
  • Science and Technology Entry Program

“It was originally a very small operation and was focused entirely on partnerships through grant activity,” Licata said. “It has grown over the years, and when we hired Donna, we realized her strength as a visionary and strategic thinker would allow us to think bigger. She has built the K-12 enterprise to what it is, and allows us to continue with those deep connections we have within the community, while meeting the strategic goals of RIT.”

Burnette has been executive director of the K-12 center since 2016 after coming to the position from Virginia Tech where she helped lead AEOP’s first consortium. She’s also the principal investigator for all K-12 grants and is the director of AEOP Apprenticeships and Fellowships that provides high school through postdoctoral individuals with paid, hands-on STEM research opportunities in U.S. Army-sponsored labs and partner universities throughout the country.

The K-12 University Center, which, in some capacity has been under the umbrella of Academic Affairs since the mid-1990s, also administers state-funded programs such as LPP and STEP that provide local students with academic and personal supports. Outreach specialists who work with those programs are embedded in area schools, such as in Greece and Rush-Henrietta central school districts, and within schools in the City of Rochester. It’s also integral in overseeing the university’s partnership with Rochester Prep, working with schools and other youth groups to bring interactive nontraditional admissions campus experiences to them, and facilitating RIT’s oldest and longest-running summer camp opportunity with Camp Tiger.

By April of 2020, the Office of Youth Protection and Compliance was founded under direction of Cara Mulvaney to support all campus initiatives regarding interaction with minors, and in 2022, the K-12 center was named a Research Center of Excellence.

“With its expansion in programming over the years and the vision Donna has provided, the entire K-12 enterprise further affirms the role RIT can play in this local, regional and national space,” Licata said. “Even with the work we’re doing with AEOP – it’s the largest grant-sponsored program that RIT has received, so that’s significant and I expect there will also be expansion with that as we move forward with the move downtown. The move will give the entire team room to meet, grow, schedule classes and think strategically. We’ll always have (youth) programming on campus, but now we can have programming there to broaden our outreach.”

Moving from campus to Downtown Rochester

The move off campus and into downtown Rochester was made to expand room for more work within the facility as K-12 develops additional partnerships and programs. On Sept. 13, a grand opening was held that welcomed guests such as Mayor Malik Evans, and other campus and community leaders.

“I see this as a bridge between our faculty, programming K-12 offers and how this ties into the community,” Licata said. “There is a large footprint that brings all of K-12 together downtown to show our commitment to being at the heart of the community.”

The K-12 University Center moved to the downtown Rochester space from the Annex, Building 88, on RIT’s campus in the Town of Henrietta. Also known as the “trailer,” the structure was constructed in 2007 for a reported $538,000 for what Yarrington said was “to provide flexible and temporary occupancy by the Division of Academic Affairs,” which the K-12 center is a part of.

The proposal to construct the modular unit came April 3, 2007 with building happening largely in the third and fourth quarters of that calendar year. It was open the following year. RIT K-12 moved into the manufactured space as early as 2012, but didn’t include all its employees, as some K-12 administrators were located at different buildings on campus, while other staff was housed at the annex.

Building 88 and the unit next door were demolished this summer, and are being replaced by a proposed two-story science research center that will include a plethora of laboratory space, according to Yarrington. The proposal for the project came in March 2022, and is planned to open in the fall of 2024.

“We are excited about embedding in the community (and) about building trust through consistency, through long-term meaningful partnerships,” Burnette said. “We are excited to work with more youth – we need them – people are the key ingredient to innovation. The City of Rochester youth have all of the potential to create transformative change, not only locally, but throughout our country and the world. We are happy to be part of their journey – to hold open the door of opportunity for them to walk through.”


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