A school can be the anchor of a rural community. As such, some rural locations faced with dwindling populations and the possibility of losing their public schools to consolidations and closures are turning to charter schools as an option.
Starting a charter school can be a divisive issue in urban areas with failing public schools. However, in a rural area trying to keep its school alive, the chartering option can serve as a resource instead of a threat. Education experts say that to lose a school can be devastating for a rural area and that schools give such places their identity.
Rural America has changed dramatically. It has higher unemployment than urban centers, its young people have moved out leaving a largely elderly population, and schools have had a hard time keeping up.
In a rural community, the school serves as a social hub, a binding agent for the residents, and can provide economic and political benefits as well. The 16 percent of charter schools that are operating in rural areas strive to be a connection between the students and their hometowns by nurturing a sense of place and community. Charter schools want to offer place-based education as an answer to the issue of rural sustainability.
In Logantown, Pennsylvania for example, the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School is teaching the region’s agricultural history to its student body. The school’s chief executive officer says that it is important for the students to have an appreciation of the local farming culture and how hard the people of Sugar Valley worked to create the local economy.
The lead teacher at Merrimac Community Charter School in Merrimac, Wisconsin, has neighbors volunteer to teach art, baking, and gardening lessons as part of the school’s place-based curriculum. The idea is that if children learn about the environment in which they live, they will develop a sense of caring for the community that will continue into adulthood.
Rural charter schools face the same issues that urban charters do – the charter application process requires knowledge of the complicated bureaucracy involved with starting a school from scratch, as well as time and money. Rural communities may be lacking in some or all of these areas. Critics say charters draw funding and students away from public schools already struggling for survival. Money is generally stretched tightly in a rural area so it is easy to see what is draining the supply if a charter opens for business.
Often charter schools are professionally managed by a for-profit Educational Management Organization (EMO) or a non-profit Charter Management Organization (CMO). According to 2014-15 statistics, approximately 44 percent of U.S. charter schools are run by EMOs or CMOs, but among rural charters, only 19 percent use professional management. Most often they are run independently by local community groups who have less interest in profit margins and more interest in the school’s success and that of the students – especially if the option is no school at all.