Next steps logo

Can a rural district run its own charter school?

A rural Florida school district has one year to turn around a school that’s struggled academically for much of the past two decades.

If it doesn’t improve during the upcoming school year, Hamilton County High School could be one of the first schools affected by a new state law that ratchets up the pressure on low-performing schools.

But district Superintendent Rex Mitchell may have another idea. According to the Suwanee Democrat, he wants to consider merging the long-struggling high school with a newly constituted elementary school.

Last month, Mitchell told the state Board of Education the district has combined its three elementary schools onto a single campus.

Merging the high school with the just-merged elementary schools could reset its turnaround timeline. Or so officials hope.

Mitchell, along with board attorney James Willingham Jr., explained that there are now not two actual options available to the school, but a possible third.

The third option is that idea of combining the two schools to create a K-12 school, Willingham Jr. said.

Option one is to close the school and then open it back up as a charter school. Option two would reassign students to another school and monitor their progress.

“To compare what is happening is like having someone come in as a senior, and during their senior year going, ‘Oh and by the way we’ve got this Americanism vs. Communism course that is coming back and you’ve got to take it before you graduate,’” Mitchell explained. “That would be fine if the kid is in ninth grade, but the kid is already a senior at this point and it makes it difficult.”

In fact, the new law gives schools like Hamilton High three options, not two. They can convert to charter schools, close or bring in an external operator.

The “external operator” can be a public school, run by the district, but overseen by an independent charter school board. Merging schools to create a new institution, then, would be the fourth option.

A district-run charter might make sense in Hamilton. It’s a rural district with just one primary and one secondary school. That means closing the high school isn’t much of an option. Recruiting a charter school operator to a remote part of North Florida might be difficult, Jefferson County notwithstanding.

When they rejected Hamilton High’s turnaround plan last month, several state board members said Mitchell seemed intent on streamlining the district and recruiting qualified staff.

That’s what the district-run charter option is designed to allow. The district could continue the changes Mitchell has promised, but create a new layer of community oversight.

The goal is to spur the kind of improvement the school hasn’t achieved on its own for 18 years and counting. Since 1999, it’s earned D’s or F’s from the state in every year but 2011, when it received a C. Right now, it’s rated incomplete.

Avatar photo

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)