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Rural charter schools overcome obstacles to create new options

The proliferation of charter schools around the country has come more slowly to rural areas.

Yet nationwide, nearly 800 rural charter schools are grappling with limited funding, diffuse populations, and, in some cases, resistance from local school districts. Away from the spotlight of major media markets, they haven’t gotten as much attention as their urban counterparts.

But perhaps they should.

Terry Ryan is president of the Idaho Charter School Network. At an annual gathering of charter school advocates and educators in Las Vegas, he opened a discussion of high-performing rural charters by pointing out that only 27 percent of rural high school graduates make it to college – a sign, he said, that students in those areas could benefit from more options.

Michael Hayes, director of Crestone Charter School in southern Colorado, said it took time for a new “laboratory for learning” to take root in the Rockies and ease tensions with the local district. He recalled supporters in the early years leaving school board meetings and finding the tires on their cars had been slashed.

Over time, he said, the school learned to collaborate with the district and began to serve as a community gathering place, offering yoga lessons in a multi-purpose room known as Rainbow Hall.

“It took us 16 or 17 years to feel permanent, like we might not go away the next year,” he said. Now, “they know that we’re here to stay, that we’re not going anywhere.”

Asked what policies could help newer schools achieve a similar sense of permanence, Kylie Holley, principal of the Pataula Charter Academy in southwestern Georgia said: “Hands down, equitable funding.”

Her school opened in 2010 with approval from Georgia’s statewide charter school commission after local districts rejected its proposal. It buses in students from five surrounding counties, and, in a situation that might resonate with charter schools in neighboring Florida, it doesn’t receive dedicated funding for facilities. Those expenses, she said, place a “big drain on our operating resources.”

Like Holley, Sue Smith, the founder of the Upper Carmen Charter School, was previously an educator in a traditional public school.

Smith said she helped start her school, which serves 85 students in three classrooms in the mountains of east central Idaho, because she felt “encumbered by bureaucracy” in the traditional system and wanted “freedom to experiment and create curriculum.” Its multi-grade classrooms allow younger students to learn from older kids.

She said one test of a charter school’s success is whether it develops new approaches to teaching that can be applied in traditional public schools. She’ll soon have a chance to try doing just that. On Tuesday, her husband, Jim, became superintendent of the local Salmon School District.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)


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