Considerations for Stakeholders
Charter schools are by no means a silver bullet for the challenges facing rural communities. In fact, in some cases charter schools can be detrimental, the final straw for a struggling rural school district. But sometimes rural charter schools can thrive. They can fill gaps in the educational offerings, offer alternatives to families, and provide outstanding education opportunities to students.
What factors mean the difference between a charter school that devastates a rural community and one that helps renew it? Below, we offer some thoughts about what key stakeholders — funders, authorizers, and potential school leaders — should look for when considering whether to open a charter school in a rural community.
Critically, the considerations offered below are not meant to suggest that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. As is the case in every geography, understanding the particular local dynamics is essential for any school-opening decision. Rather, these considerations are meant to be a starting place for stakeholders as they’re determining if a charter school is a viable solution to the specific challenges of a rural community.
Considerations for funders
Funders play an important role in the start-up phase of opening a charter school, helping to fund the up-front costs of designing the school, applying for a charter, and hiring teachers before the flow of public funding even begins. Sometimes funders also provide ongoing operational funding or one-time infusions of funding for large purchases, such as new technology. While many elements of the funder-charter school relationship are consistent regardless of geography, there are particular considerations for funders interested in supporting rural charter schools.
For one, funders of rural charter schools might consider efforts to stabilize those schools’ enrollment and budgets. Enrollment can be a challenge for rural charter schools operating in communities with small pools of K-12 students. This, coupled with already-tight budgets, can be a major pain point for such schools. Prior to investing in a rural charter school, funders should do additional due diligence to ensure that a school’s enrollment and budget projections are realistic given community size, trends in population growth and decline, and demand from families.
For existing schools, funders could position themselves to offer short-term, “emergency” funds that can help school leaders immediately stabilize their finances in the event of sudden enrollment drops or other issues. And, while funders often eschew ongoing operational funding, they may consider engaging in long-term, multiyear funding that enables rural charter school leaders to enhance their budgets over multiple years to hire additional staff, fund ongoing programs, pay for transportation, or address any number of ongoing challenges. Rural charter school leaders know how to stretch a dollar, and thus funders can be confident that their investments will be used carefully and to the direct benefit of the school and its students. And over the long term, these investments can materialize in attracting new families to the community, boosting enrollment as well as the local economy.
Second, funders could focus on teacher and leader recruitment and retention, as these are perennial challenges for rural charter school leaders. Funders could engage on this issue in one of two key ways: First, funders could provide ongoing support to schools to help them directly address the human capital challenge. This includes investments such as funding high-quality professional development opportunities to build the skills of existing staff members or providing grants that schools can use for financial incentives such as “signing bonuses” for teachers. Funders could also consider providing grants that help schools hire for other positions, including classroom aides or administrative staff, or even outside agencies to handle back-office tasks like billing and contracts.
Moreover, funders could consider supporting rural charter schools through up-front investments that help them build, develop, and implement human capital strategies that could become self-sustaining over the long term. For example, funders could support rural charter school leaders to establish relationships with local colleges of education or to develop local teacher and leader pipelines or “grow-your-own” human capital programs.
Finally, funders ought to consider additional due diligence related to understanding the community context, prior to supporting rural charter schools. Given how important it is that rural school founders and/or leaders come from the local community and have established trusting relationships with key community stakeholders, funders may benefit from visiting the community and observing school founders’ conversations with residents about the proposed school. Understanding the existing gap that the school plans to fill, how residents (and leaders in the local school district) feel about the proposed charter school, and the depth of relationships the prospective leader has in the community are all steps that funders can take to ensure they are making informed decisions.
Along the same lines, funders ought to consider the collective skill sets of the school’s founding team as they determine whether or not to make an investment in a rural charter school. As demonstrated in all of our case study schools, rural school leaders wear many hats and rely on their employees and board members to shoulder extra responsibilities. School leadership teams must include adept managers and instructional coaches, demonstrate the business and financial acumen necessary to run a successful school, and show a willingness for and track record of finding the help they need among their staff, the community, and other key partners. These skills and traits are not easy to find in a single individual, and so funders should assess the collective founding team and/or the school board, who can help round out key competencies and characteristics.
Considerations for authorizers
By definition, authorizers have the final say in whether or not a rural charter school can open. While there are lots of resources available to support authorizers in developing processes to identify the highest-potential schools and ensure that charter school boards and leaders have in place what they need to be successful, there are some particular considerations authorizer staff should keep in mind when it comes to authorizing and overseeing a rural charter school.
To begin with, authorizers should allow and encourage rural charter school leaders to be creative and flexible with their staffing arrangements. For example, school leaders may themselves teach a class or two, in addition to holding their administrative role. Where state law allows, authorizers should not limit approaches like this. Where authorizer policies regarding student-to-teacher ratios or other staffing requirements, for example, are more stringent than state law requires, authorizers should consider amending or waiving those requirements to enable greater flexibility. (And, where state law does not allow, authorizers might consider leveraging their experience with rural charter schools to argue for greater flexibility.)
Like funders, authorizers should work to assess the collective skill set of the founding team and/or school board. Ideally, the school’s leader will be well rounded, bringing a track record of leadership and skills in varying domains such as education, business, and finance. At minimum, the school leader should build a team that covers these key skill sets, to enable them to both develop an educationally sound academic program and navigate the ins and outs of potentially complicated tasks such as compliance and budgeting.
Authorizers may also consider additional due diligence to fully understand the social and political dynamics in a given rural community. This would likely include understanding the extent to which a prospective school founding team has roots in that community and is willing and able to work within its existing dynamics. If not already part of the authorizer’s school application process, authorizers may want to consider adding a component that asks the school leader to demonstrate evidence of need for the school and/or community demand for the school’s model, and apply a higher threshold than it might in a more densely populated setting. That is, given the relationship between high levels of community support and the success of rural charter schools, authorizers should be cautious if there’s little to no demonstrated community backing. On the other hand, though, strong community support should be an indicator that a charter school has a strong likelihood of success, as it will have the investment and engagement of community leaders and families to help sustain it.
A lack of community support isn’t necessarily an indicator that a rural charter school will fail, however. In communities that are sufficiently large — with a big enough school-aged population to sustain multiple school options, as we saw in Prescott Valley — it may still be possible for a charter school to succeed despite community pushback. It’s a tough proposition, however, and authorizers ought to be prepared for increased difficulty and a potentially greater likelihood of failure.
Considerations for prospective school leaders
Those hoping to launch and lead charter schools in rural communities have their work cut out for them. They must be prepared to address all of the same challenges that are common in any geography (community engagement, enrollment, budget, transportation, facilities, academic programming, etc.), while also readying themselves for the unique challenges posed by the rural location.
Given this complexity, rural charter school leaders must be thoughtful planners, astute leaders, and creative problem-solvers. They must be well-rounded, ideally with experience in both education and business. At the very least, prospective leaders must be prepared to develop a strong team of board members who are invested in the school’s mission, bring varying skill sets to the table, and are willing and able to leverage their relationships with the local community.
In terms of actual school operation, prospective school leaders should be prepared to operate their schools on shoestring budgets, have contingency operating budgets to help navigate fluctuations in enrollment, and be willing to be creative about scheduling, staffing, and programming. Board members of rural charter schools should make sure that these plans are in place. Prospective school leaders should find opportunities to work with local school district officials to the extent possible and be prepared to make cuts and compromises (e.g., facility amenities) while understanding what factors are essential to the school’s success, regardless of cost (e.g., transportation).
In terms of human capital, prospective school leaders should develop a solid understanding of the state laws and authorizer policies regarding staffing requirements, and be as creative as they can be within those boundaries. For example, school leaders could consider nontraditional arrangements like multiaged classrooms, having teachers teach multiple subjects or grade levels, or having staff hold multiple positions, for example functioning simultaneously as part-time teachers and part-time administrators. Clearly communicating with authorizers about their plans will help school boards and leaders avoid surprises and iron out any compliance challenges ahead of time.
Building relationships with talent pipelines, such as local colleges of education and other leadership development organizations, can help enlarge the pool of potential staff members, as can launching “grow-your-own” programs. Though competition with the local school district for human capital is likely, prospective leaders should, to the extent possible, work with district officials to establish programs that benefit the entire community. In the best of circumstances, a rural charter school and the local district may find ways to share specialized staff in mutually beneficial ways.
Finally, prospective school leaders should consider the importance of having strong roots in the community in which they plan to launch a school. If the leader herself is from the community, she should plan to invest in relationships with community leaders and members to develop a school model that meets local needs and has the support of residents. If the leader is not from the community, ensuring local leadership on the board can help build these relationships. Either way, prospective leaders should have a clear plan for ongoing community engagement, both before launching the school as well as once it is established. Meeting regularly with local community leaders (elected officials, business owners, pastors, etc.) and creating opportunities for leaders and other community members to regularly engage with the school can help build and maintain support. Bringing local leaders to the school to observe classes and talk to families can help demonstrate the value the school adds to the community. To the extent possible, school leaders should also work to staff their schools with professionals who have ties to the local community. This not only offers an economic boost to the surrounding area by providing additional jobs, but also helps build an even deeper connection with the local community.
Stakeholders interested in pursuing charter schools in rural communities should be prepared to address many of the same factors they address when opening charter schools in other geographies. However, the rural geography adds another layer to these considerations and requires that key stakeholders clearly understand the unique challenges that these schools may face as well as the factors that can set them up for success. The diversity of rural places requires developing a deep understanding of the nuances of each community, and there’s a lot more research to be done to understand how these nuances affect a school’s success. However, the considerations we present here offer a useful starting point for the funders, authorizers, and prospective school leaders who are considering launching or supporting charter schools in rural communities.