About this Site



This website is designed to begin to answer the question, “When rural charter schools succeed, what conditions have enabled them to do so?” The four schools profiled here are examples of charter schools that are outperforming state averages and operate in rural communities. Their models, the populations they serve, and the communities in which they operate all vary from one to the next. And yet, the commonalities across the four schools, in both the challenges they have faced and the factors that have facilitated their success, can help inform key stakeholder groups, namely funders, authorizers, and prospective school leaders, interested in launching a charter school in a rural community.

To read more about the background motivation for this website, see our site introduction page.

This site was created by Bellwether Education Partners with support from the Louis Calder Foundation.




Identifying rural communities and rural schools is more complicated than it seems. Key government agencies define “rural” differently, using various components such as distance, population, population density, or land use to differentiate between urban and rural places. It was not our task to come up with a better or different way to identify rural charter schools, so we started with the school locale data reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The NCES locale framework includes four basic types of locales (city, suburb, town, and rural). Each locale type is further expanded into three subtypes and corresponding numerical codes. Rural places can be subdivided into three subtypes:[1]

  • Rural-Fringe (locale code 41): Rural territory that is 5 miles or less from a Census-defined Urbanized Area, or a rural territory that is 2.5 miles or less from a Census-defined Urban Cluster

  • Rural-Distant (locale code 42): Rural territory that is between 5 and 25 miles from a Census-defined Urbanized Area or between 2.5 and 10 miles from an Urban Cluster

  • Rural-Remote (locale code 43): Rural territory that is more than 25 miles from a Census-defined Urbanized Area and more than 10 miles from a Census-defined Urban Cluster

NCES data includes locale codes for every public school in the country, as well as whether the school is a district or charter school. We began by pulling from NCES the list of all charter schools in the United States that are coded as rural as of the 2016-17 school year. That list contains 809 schools nationwide. From there, we narrowed the list based on four factors: 1) those schools that had been in operation for at least three years; 2) those that offered at least one tested subject between grades three and eight for at least three years; 3) those with at least 40% of their enrollment eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (this is the minimum threshold for schools to be eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs[2]); and 4) those with school-level math and reading scores on the most recent statewide assessment that surpassed their corresponding statewide averages. We relied on national data from NCES to the extent possible. For school-level rates of free and reduced-price lunch eligibility and assessment data, we used data from the corresponding state departments of education.

We eliminated virtual charter schools and for-profit charter schools from the sample. By their nature, virtual charter schools are likely to have a different impact in a rural community than a brick-and-mortar charter school might and may enroll students from a wide geographic area not limited to a rural community. These extra variables would cloud our analysis, and so we excluded these schools. We also opted to exclude for-profit charter schools from our analysis. We suspect that the for-profit model may both facilitate and hinder the success of rural charter schools in ways that are different from the factors that facilitate and hinder the success for nonprofit schools. To keep our sample similar along this important dimension, we chose to focus only on nonprofit charter schools.  

After applying these filters, we had a total of 53 schools remaining in our sample. From there, we began reaching out to the leaders of each of these schools. We sent emails, called the schools, and used our networks to attempt to contact every school leader. We conducted interviews with the school leaders to learn more about the history of the school and the role that it plays in its local community. We also asked about the possibility of doing a case study; not all schools were open to the idea.

We also considered the diversity within the set of case study schools, and attempted to include schools that are diverse along different dimensions in order to bring varying perspectives to inform our overall analysis. For example, the four schools in our final set serve very different racial/ethnic populations. At both Prescott Valley and Roots and Wings, more than one-third of the student body is Hispanic. Glacial Hills Elementary serves an almost entirely white population, while Crossroad serves a population that is two-thirds black. The schools also operate in very different community sizes. Both Crossroad and Prescott Valley are considered “rural-fringe” — the “least rural” of NCES’ rural categories. Meanwhile, Roots and Wings and Glacial Hills are “rural-remote” — the “most rural” designation. They also vary substantially in enrollment size, with Roots and Wings enrolling just 50 students and Crossroad enrolling more than 500 students.

We believe that the diversity within our final sample helped us to better understand the different “types” of rural charter schools that exist and answer our overarching research question — when rural charters succeed, what are the conditions that enable them to do so? — accounting for important differences across these and other dimensions of school diversity.




  • Writing and editing: Kelly Robson, Brandon Lewis, Juliet Squire, Tanya Paperny 

  • Web development: ForumOne

  • Communications: Jeremy Knight

  • Copy editing: Super Copy Editors

  • Photography: Website authors, unless otherwise noted




The authors would like to thank the many individuals who shared their time and knowledge with us to inform this project. We are particularly grateful to the school leaders who opened their schools to us, including Deb Mathias at Glacial Hills Elementary School; Kevin Forehand at Crossroad Academy Charter School; Peg Bartlett, Todd Wynward, and Mark Richert at Roots and Wings Community School; and Monika and Mike Fuller at Prescott Valley Charter School. Thanks also to the dozens of teachers, parents, and community members who took the time to sit down with us and share their experiences during in-depth interviews.

The contributions of these individuals significantly enhanced our work, and any errors are the responsibility of the authors alone.

The views and analysis in this site are the responsibility of the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Louis Calder Foundation or any of the quoted individuals.

Feedback or questions for our team? Contact us here.



[1] US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “NCES Locale Classifications and Criteria,” accessed July 2019, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/edge/docs/LOCALE_CLASSIFICATIONS.pdf.

[2] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “What Is Title I and What Type of Student Does it Serve?,” accessed July 2019,  https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=158.