One of the last things you’d expect to see driving through the densely wooded forest that covers northern New Mexico’s Taos Mountains is a charter school. But about a half-mile off of Route 522, along La Lama Road, sits Roots and Wings.
Opened in 2000, Roots and Wings Community School does what most charter schools strive to do: It offers a high-quality alternative to the local district-operated schools. But it does so in a context that differs dramatically from the vast majority of charter schools. Roots and Wings calls home the tiny rural village of Questa, New Mexico. Less than 400 students attend Questa’s district schools. The neighboring district of Taos, from which Roots and Wings also draws its enrollment, is slightly larger, educating about 2,800 students. Roots and Wings itself enrolls just 50 students. But for nearly two decades it has managed to survive, and even thrive, on its little patch of land in a remote area of northern New Mexico.
To better understand the conditions that help charter schools succeed in rural settings, we studied Roots and Wings and three other rural charter schools across the country: Crossroad Academy Charter School in Quincy, Florida; Glacial Hills Elementary School in Starbuck, Minnesota; and Prescott Valley Charter School in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Each school is filling gaps in its local education market and outperforming its district and state on statewide math and reading assessments. The schools are also defying the common assumption that charter schools don’t have much to offer small, rural communities.
To be sure, the skepticism of rural charter schools is not unfounded. Charter schools can and do affect the enrollment of local school districts and their budgets. Because of their inherently small scale, even marginal enrollment changes from a single charter school can have devastating consequences for a rural school system. And while data is relatively thin, the performance of rural charter schools appears quite mixed.
But are there instances in which rural charter schools can and do thrive? By studying and visiting four rural charter schools in a diverse set of communities across the country, we sought to better understand the contextual factors that have enabled rural charter schools’ success. What should funders, authorizers, and prospective school leaders be thinking about as they consider investing in, authorizing, or launching a charter school in a rural community?
This website was created to offer a starting place for these and other stakeholders to begin to answer these questions. It offers examples of rural charter schools that are outperforming their local district schools; have filled unique gaps in their local education markets; have found ways to work through common sector-wide challenges like tight finances, transportation, enrollment, and human capital; and persevered despite the unique challenges of their geography.
In each case study, we seek to bring the reader with us to the school’s community and its context, providing a portrait of the community’s history, population, and economy. We then explore the core elements of the school’s model, its successes, and the challenges each school has faced or continues to face. We sought to understand these schools and their communities from a variety of perspectives, weaving together the voices of the school leader, teachers, parents, community members, and political leaders to create as complete a picture as possible.
In addition to the case studies of the four schools, there are a variety of other resources available on this site:
The key themes page, which provides a synthesis of takeaways from across the four case studies
The stakeholder considerations page, where we include a discussion of considerations geared toward stakeholders who hold some decision-making power over whether or not a rural charter school opens: funders, authorizers, and prospective school leaders
The about page, which includes a description of the methodology we used to identify these four schools
The rural education overview page, which provides contextual data for rural communities and schools
Feel free to share the individual stories or the entire site with those you think would be interested in learning more. Questions or comments? See the about page for contact information.