The bell still rings on school days in the town of Paisley, Ore., just as it has for nearly a century in the high-desert community about an hour’s drive north of the California border.
Paisley School, which serves grades K-12 and is its district’s only school, likely would have shut down this year had Superintendent Mark Jeffery and others not worked to change the campus into a charter school.
Converting to a charter was the ticket to survival for Paisley School, which was suffering from drops in enrollment and state budget cuts, while still providing a list of state-mandated services.
Charter schools are public schools that typically operate under fewer state and local regulations. And while dozens of other Oregon districts facing similar problems have not followed Paisley’s lead, interest in charters may be rising among remote, rural schools in Oregon and other states as a way for some of America’s smallest schools to survive.
By acquiring a charter, Paisley School qualified for about $350,000 in federal grants for charter schools, which should help keep the 80-student school open three more years, Mr. Jeffery said.
“Rural areas have to look at things differently and do things the best way they can,” he added.
Oregon has 41 charter schools, and roughly 15 could be considered rural. But only Paisley has become a charter school—and a charter district—to save itself from closure or bankruptcy, said Rob Kremer, the executive director of the Portland-based Oregon Education Coalition.
He also runs the Oregon Charter School Service Center, which advises charter schools in the state, and he predicts greater interest in the charter option. “I expect kind of a sagebrush rebellion against some of the state mandates among the rural school districts,” Mr. Kremer said of the situation in Oregon.
Oregon legislators changed the charter school law last year to allow districts with only one school to become charter districts, with a vote of the local school board, Mr. Kremer said. Before, charter schools had to be governed by nonprofit organizations. That requirement meant that a district with only one school would have had to create its own nonprofit organization to become a charter district.
“They’re threatened by lots of state mandates that are appropriate for larger schools, that are inappropriate for districts that are tiny, such as Paisley.” Mr. Kremer said of his state’s smallest schools.
Advice From Colorado
Rural charter schools in similar predicaments are popping up in other states.
In Colorado, 10 of the state’s more than 100 charter schools are in remote, rural locations. Several of them have opened because local regular public schools have been closed.
“It’s really been a part of the landscape since Day One,” Jim Griffin, the executive director of the Denver-based Colorado League of Charter Schools, said of charter schools as a way of keeping schools open.
While rural charter schools are filling a gap for some parents and students who want to keep their local schools, Mr. Griffin advises that they proceed with caution.
If a regular public school merely changes its name to a charter school and keeps the same school board and academic program, the concept of a charter school as a means of fostering innovation can be defeated, he said. In the best situations, changing to charter school status can be a time for parents and educators to re-examine the way a school operates, how its children are taught, and its academic goals, Mr. Griffin said.
Laws in some states, however, do not allow regular public schools to convert to charter status. In addition, 10 states have no charter school laws at all.
As for Paisley School in Oregon, fiscal uncertainties prompted Mr. Jeffery to look at switching to charter status. But it was the flexibility available to charter schools that won him over. For example, state rules required a full-time librarian for the tiny campus, but Paisley has saved money by using a part-time librarian since becoming a charter school.
“We have not been able to find a downside,” Mr. Jeffery said.
When federal grants run out in three years, Paisley’s students may have to travel 50 mountainous miles—over icy roads in the winter—to attend a neighboring school. But Mr. Jeffery said his enrollment is rising in the early grades, which gives him hope that the communities of Paisley and neighboring Summer Lake will keep their local school.
To help Paisley School survive once the federal grants expire, its goal is to make some of its programs self-sustaining. The school has bought six head of cattle to help agriculture students learn about raising and selling animals. Students also are working on projects with local foresters.