The North Idaho STEM Charter Academy operates here out of seven portable buildings that house the school’s offices, classroom space for 317 K-8 students, and a “cafegymatorium.”
Although the school may not boast state-of-the-art facilities, it took three years of searching and negotiations to acquire the four-acre campus on which the school sits, said Scott Thomson, one-half of the husband-and-wife duo who opened the school in fall 2012.
“Facilities is a huge issue, especially for a rural school,” he said.
In fact, rural charters face a host of challenges that set them apart from their urban counterparts, charter experts say. Besides a lack of suitable facilities, they have smaller budgets and fewer support services than urban charters; a smaller pool of students, teachers, and administrators to draw from; and, often, particularly tense relationships with their local school districts as they compete for limited resources and relatively few students.
Such difficulties may help explain why the proportion of charters serving rural communities, though growing, is still small: Rural charters make up about 16 percent—785 schools—of the total number of charter schools across the United States. And only 111 of those schools operate in remote rural areas.
But proponents of charters say those independent public schools can breathe new economic life into rural communities with dwindling populations by adding jobs and attracting families to a town, even as they provide an alternative to local schools that, like big-city schools, may be struggling.
In some cases, rural charters have been founded to stave off consolidation and keep schools open in small communities, said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit consulting firm that works with schools to improve achievement. Mr. Smarick recently examined such schools in five states and argued for the expansion of rural charter schools as a way to strengthen rural education.
Mr. Smarick also wrote a 2012 book, The Urban School System of the Future, about the impact of vouchers and charter schools on school districts.
“Chartering can do great things, but it’s much more complicated in rural areas,” he said. “If you live in a rural state, chances are you have a weak charter law or not one at all.”
The eight states that do not allow charter schools are mostly rural, he said. Those states are: Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.
‘Huge Financial Issue’
Robert Mahaffey, the spokesman for the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said his organization rarely supports the growth of charters in rural communities.
“From a resource standpoint, where we come down when it comes to charters is, first and foremost, how are they being funded?” he said. “Are you in essence draining essential resources from the traditional public school?”
If a local public school isn’t meeting the needs of its community, Mr. Mahaffey said, before turning to a charter school, “let’s bring the parties together along with local business leaders, the school board, parents, and, most importantly, the students … and figure out a strategy where we can improve the existing public school.”
Kai A. Schafft, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said that his research on rural charters supports Mr. Mahaffey’s stance.
“The charter school advocates present [rural charters] mostly in terms of ‘this is a good thing because it results in more choice,’ but the problem with that argument is that the choice comes at a potentially significant cost, and that is the institutional undermining of the option that already exists,” Mr. Schafft said.
“In the context of Pennsylvania, with shrinking school district budgets, superintendents are facing increasingly tight fiscal circumstances,” he said. “The movement of students from public schools into charter schools is really a huge financial issue.”
But back in Rathdrum, where the playground of the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy overlooks one of the local district’s high schools, parents and students don’t have time to wait, said Shauna Foss, whose son Chance, an 8th grader, has attended the school since its opening.
“Chance is an advanced learner, so he tended to be fairly bored in the classrooms [at his local public school],” she said. “Instead of having our kids taught to the test or giving them ditto after ditto, [the STEM academy] makes them really think outside the box and figure out what they need to make it work.”
The school infuses instruction in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—throughout its curriculum and promotes project-based learning for all students.
Each day, students take their core classes in the morning and work on projects in the afternoon. The projects include such hands-on activities as preparing for the Mars Rover and MINDS-i competitions, which require students to work in teams to program and create robots that can perform a series of tasks such as climbing a hill or collecting rocks.
Ms. Foss has been so impressed with the school that she, along with a group of other parents, pushed the Thomsons to add high school grades to the school. The state has since approved the expansion, and the charter will be adding one grade level a year, starting with 9th grade in 2014-15, until it is a K-12 facility.
To accommodate the expansion, the school is building a new, 19,000-square-foot facility next to its portable classrooms that will soon house students in K-4, and it has purchased an additional three acres of land. The expansion is being funded through a private loan from a local bank.
The school also received a $50,000 grant from the Boise-based J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation shortly after opening.
Between its first and second years of operation, the school had a 98 percent re-enrollment rate, and its waiting list has grown to nearly 300 students for next year, school officials said.
When the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy opened, the school initially pulled students from 47 different schools in the area, Mr. Thomson said.
About 130 students were from the 4,100-student Lakeland district, in which the charter school operates, said Tom Taggart, Lakeland’s director of business and operations.
Although the district knew the school would be opening, “we were already losing students on our own, and that was a bit of a blow,” Mr. Taggart said of the charter’s arrival.
It’s not just funding that the regular public schools are losing, he said.
“The students who do leave are sometimes the leaders in their class. They’re good examples with involved parents,” Mr. Taggart said. “So the school’s taken a hit more than just [in terms of] numbers of students.”
But he also said that the charter school was a “good thing” for parents who want their children to have a more STEM-focused curriculum. And it has even spurred some changes to the local high school, such as an afterschool STEM club, to make it more competitive, he said.
In Walton, Kan., the Walton Rural Life Center is a rural charter school that has received national attention for its agriculture-based, project-centered curriculum. (The school has no association with the Walton Family Foundation.)
The school converted from a regular public school to a charter in 2007 at the suggestion of the local school district’s superintendent, said Natise Vogt, the principal of the 240-student K-4 school.
Conversion to charter status allowed the school to pull students from a larger area, potentially increasing its enrollment, which hovered just shy of 100 before the transformation, said Ms. Vogt. Over the eight years following the conversion, the school has more than doubled its enrollment, and student behavior problems have plummeted, she said.
Students at the school grow food to package and sell to the community and raise a variety of animals as well. They learn about the life cycle by watching chickens hatch, and the 2nd graders learn multiples of 12 by packaging the eggs and selling them in dozens.
“When we first started this, the community was an aging community, and now people move here because they want to be assured that their kids will be in our school,” said Ms. Vogt, who was quick to say that the school has never actively recruited students from other districts, so as not to “steal their kids.”
Similarly, the Rural Community Academy, a 100-student school in Graysville, Ind., converted from a regular public school to a charter model in 2004 under the threat of consolidation.
The K-8 school centers around a place-based instructional model that “means bringing people into the school, and that also means taking kids places,” said Susie Pierce, the school’s leader and chief operating officer. "[The students] get to know their community and the people in it.”
The school draws on partnerships within the community to provide services to students and make ends meet, said Ms. Pierce. For example,when the school first opened, the hospital provided meal services for the students. (The school has since taken over providing meals on its own.)
And the local Lions club holds annual student vision screenings at the school, Ms. Pierce said.
The school, in turn, is one reason why the community has continued to thrive, she said. It has 28 full- and part-time employees, she noted, and spurred the opening of at least three new businesses in the town.
Having the buy-in of the community is key to the success and longevity of rural charter schools, said Terry Ryan, the president of the Boise-based Idaho Charter School Network.
“The school has to be seen as being locally owned or locally imported by people who have the right motives,” he said. That may be part of the reason that charter-management organizations, which operate networks of charter schools and make up a large portion of such schools in urban areas, have little presence in rural settings.
One notable exception is the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter network, which is now branching out to the Mississippi Delta region.
The network is also planning to open a school in rural North Carolina this summer, with help from a program run by the pro-charter group Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, in Raleigh.
“Our target is really in these underserved communities, which are primarily rural,” said Christopher Gergen, a senior consultant to the organization who helped design and implement the program, known as the N.C. Charter Accelerator Program.
In that state, which has seen a big increase in charter schools since lifting its 100-charter cap in 2011, urban areas are approaching a saturation point, “leading to the exploration of new markets,” including rural communities, Mr. Gergen said.
Nina Rees, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called rural communities “the last and final frontier in [charter school] expansion efforts.”
“When you look at the illiteracy rates [in rural areas] and the fact that we’re not focused on it at all in a comprehensive way, it is a shame,” she said.
While polls show that rural communities tend to have higher levels of trust and affection for their local public schools than communities in other areas do, rural residents may become more comfortable with charters, Ms. Rees said, as charter schools begin to have more success in those areas.
“The best way to make the case for expanding into another rural area is if you’ve done it well,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Charter Schools Grab Rural Toehold