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How To Grow Rural Charter Schools: A Primer

Rural school enrollment is growing, but rural charter schools haven't kept pace.

Only 16 percent of all charter schools nationwide were rural, compared with 33 percent of traditional schools, according to statistics from 2009-10.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a new brief Monday intended to help policymakers, charter support organizations, and communities grow rural charter schools.

The 16-page brief, "Beyond City Limits: Expanding Public Charter Schools in Rural America," highlights some of the challenges rural charter schools face and possible solutions to overcome them.

The brief provides some general characteristics of rural charter schools, including lower enrollments, smaller classes, and more-frequent use of alternative grade combinations (such as K-8 or K-12) than traditional schools.

It goes on to detail some of the more common obstacles rural districts face, such as building community support, application and start-up costs, facilities, board member recruitment, staffing, funding, and authorizer capacity. The report delves into each of those in more detail.

State's charter schools laws also can be a problem, according to the brief. Many of the states that don't have charter school laws are mostly rural; seven of the 10 states with the highest proportion of students attending rural schools lack charter school laws. Vermont is at the top of that list; 57 percent of its public school students attend rural schools, according to the alliance.

The brief has specific recommendations for charter support organizations—for example, make sure rural communities are aware of charter schools' potential benefits. It also has suggestions for policymakers, among them:
• Pass charter laws in rural states;
• Remove charter school caps;
• Ensure transparency and equitable access to facilities;
• Improve charter school funding parity;
• Support research on the academic performance of rural charter schools;
• Provide flexibility for online public education.

The report highlighted three successful rural charter schools, some of which (Walton Rural Life Center in Walton, Kan.) we've featured on the Rural Ed blog.

We hadn't seen the other two—Julian Charter School in Julian, Calif., (a virtual school that also has in-person learning centers), and Paradox Valley Charter School, in Paradox Valley, Colo.

Paradox Valley got its start after the community's traditional school was forced to close in 1999 because of dwindling enrollment. After that, students had to travel three hours to get to the nearest public school, so the community rallied behind the charter concept. During the 2010-11 school year, the school served 54 students from pre-K to 8th grade, and it's also made federal Adequate Yearly Progress.

"Charter schools can provide options for improving rural education," according to the report. "The autonomy provided through the charter model can be leveraged to increase the use of technology and distance learning, take advantage of non-traditional funding streams, and give local communities a greater role in defining how to best educate their children. New and innovative approaches are clearly necessary to change the academic outcomes in all areas of this country."

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