Key Themes and Takeaways
Prescott Valley Charter School: The Exception that Proves the Rule
In many of the themes discussed here, Prescott Valley Charter School (PVCS) is an exception to the patterns we see at the other three schools. For example, PVCS is part of a robust system of school choice, as one of two dozen charter schools in its county. Its founders did not live in the area and the school wasn’t created to fill a gap in the community’s educational offerings in the same way as the other three schools were. We suspect that these exceptions are due primarily to the size of Prescott Valley, which is considerably larger than the rural communities our other three charter schools call home.
As we note in the PVCS case study, the town of Prescott Valley, Arizona, is on the larger end of the rural spectrum. It is a rural-fringe community (see the methodology page for a description of rural community types) that is home to approximately 46,000 people. Its population has grown considerably over the last several decades — a pattern that community members and leaders anticipate will continue into the foreseeable future. It’s possible that Prescott Valley could soon outgrow its designation as “rural.” But in the meantime, as a large and growing rural community, it may well have more in common with the suburban and urban communities that support a more robust set of school options than it does with the tiny communities of Starbuck, Questa, and Quincy. This suggests that the rurality of the other three schools, including the sizes of their respective communities, are the driving factors behind the insights we offer here. It also supports an assertion we make in several places on this website — that context always matters, and understanding the nuances of a given place is a crucial step for stakeholders considering the potential of a rural charter school.
If the four case studies presented here demonstrate anything, it’s that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for successful rural charter schools. Context always matters, and even more so in rural places where human capital, economics, and broader community dynamics can have an outsized impact on the success or failure of any social or business venture. But that doesn’t mean that stakeholders interested in exploring the possibility of charter schools in rural communities must start from scratch every time. On the contrary, the four rural charter schools we profile offer a starting place for founders, philanthropists, authorizers, and other stakeholders to anticipate where rural charter schools might struggle and the elements that tend to enable their success.
Our research surfaced three themes that hold true across the four schools we profiled and are important for others considering the potential of rural charter schools:
Rural charter schools face many of the same challenges as charter schools in other geographies, but these challenges manifest differently or with greater intensity
State policies are often designed with urban schools in mind and create unintended challenges for rural schools, including rural charter schools
Successful rural charter schools tend to have close and lasting ties to their community
These themes are based on in-depth school and community visits and dozens of hours of interviews with school leaders, teachers, parents, authorizers, school board representatives, district leaders, and community members. We discuss each theme below, including key takeaways for how it plays out differently or similarly across the school and community contexts in the schools profiled here.
Theme 1: Rural charter schools face many of the same challenges as charter schools in other geographies, but they often manifest differently or with greater intensity
Challenges such as enrollment, funding, transportation, and human capital are not unique to rural charter schools, or even to rural schools for that matter. They’re issues that school leaders face in all geographies and sectors. However, the geographic isolation of many rural schools, coupled with limited resources and lower funding (as a function of limited economies of scale and lower funding levels for charter schools), can make these challenges especially acute for rural charter school leaders.
These challenges are also highly interdependent: School budgets depend largely on student enrollment. Student enrollment, especially in rural communities, is affected by the availability of transportation. Transportation is expensive, and is an added strain on already-tight budgets. Tight budgets constrain the ability of rural charter schools to pay teachers the equivalent of the local district, which can hamper recruitment efforts.
The takeaways outlined below offer both a discussion of how enrollment, funding, transportation, and human capital challenges affect rural charter schools and examples of how the leaders in the four schools have worked to address them.
1. Rural charter schools operate on very tight budgets
Because they are both rural and charter, rural charter schools face serious challenges with funding. Nationally, charter schools receive an average of $5,700 less in per-pupil funding than district schools. Though district and charter schools typically receive the same per-pupil amount from the state, charters rarely receive any of the local funding that districts are able to raise through levies.
Since rural charter schools are almost entirely reliant on per-pupil funding from the state, and, as discussed in more detail below, because their enrollments tend to be small, they are operating on very tight budgets. This challenge was highlighted most profoundly at Roots and Wings, when, in 2017, the school’s total cash balance was slated to be just $500 by the end of the school year. That’s an extreme example, but it highlights the incredibly tight budgets with which rural charter school leaders operate their schools. The financial conditions of the schools came up frequently in conversations with school leaders and board members.
The implications of these budget constraints often manifest in lower teacher salaries. Teachers at Roots and Wings are among the lowest-paid in the state. At Crossroad, Glacial Hills Elementary, and PVCS, teachers estimated they could make an additional $10,000-$20,000 if they transferred to the local school district.
But school leaders make other compromises in the face of tight budgets. Glacial Hills Elementary has been operating without a gym since its opening. They’ve converted an old ambulance garage (the school’s facility was originally a hospital) into a gym-like space, but it is small and far from ideal. At PVCS, school leaders routinely finance large purchases (like laptops) with bank loans that they pay off over the course of several years.
These compromises are not uncommon for charter schools regardless of geography. However, small student bodies and the need to offer transportation to ensure enrollment (both discussed in more detail below) make budgetary challenges even more acute in rural charter schools.
2. Enrollment fluctuations can have major impacts on school budgets in small rural schools
Enrollment is perhaps one of the most important determinations of a charter school’s financial sustainability. Charter schools receive funding on a per-pupil basis, so the larger the enrollment, the more funding they get. Moreover, larger enrollments allow them to achieve economies of scale; that is, increasing fifth-grade enrollment from 17 to 19 students will bring in additional revenue but will not require hiring another teacher. In rural areas, which by definition have low population density, there is a smaller pool of K-12 students. As a result, rural charter schools’ enrollments tend to be smaller than those in larger urban districts. With smaller revenues, losing or gaining a few students here and there can have a relatively big impact on these schools’ budgets.
For example, PVCS almost closed after it lost 30 students in a month following an economic downturn in the community. Board members at Glacial Hills Elementary indicated that enrollment fluctuations have made it difficult to stabilize the school’s budget; Deb Mathias, the school’s leader, hopes to add a few more students to increase enrollment from 91 students to 100, which she estimates will stabilize the budget and enable them “to afford to do a lot more around here, including build a gym.”
3. Transportation is a priority for rural charter schools
Transportation can be a barrier to access for charter schools in all geographies, and charter school transportation policies vary widely by state and district. In some states, school districts are required to negotiate with charters but are not required to actually provide that transportation. Where there is not district-provided transportation, however, limited public transit or families’ inability to provide transportation constrains access. Often, limited transportation disproportionately constrains access for families of limited means. True everywhere, it is especially acute in rural communities where students are more likely to live long distances from school and are less likely to have access to public transit.
In urban charter schools located in proximity to public transportation, yellow-bus service is often one of the services that leaders cut when they face budget constraints. While cutting transportation can affect enrollment in urban charter schools, they’re often better positioned to absorb any losses due to a larger market of potential students and greater density of students in nearby residential areas. But cutting transportation in a rural school is trickier. Enrollment is dependent upon students, who likely live far away from the school and from one another, having a safe and reliable way to get to and from school every day.
This dynamic was demonstrated clearly at both Roots and Wings and PVCS. Roots and Wings pulls students from two surrounding school districts. The school cannot afford to provide transportation to its students, and for the first seven years of operation, there was no public transportation available. As a result, parents had to drive their children to and from school every day, the school was inaccessible to a large number of students, and the school was consistently under-enrolled. However, in 2007, the state of New Mexico launched a public bus system in north-central New Mexico. This system includes a route from Taos to Questa that has a stop within walking distance of Roots and Wings. This made Roots and Wings a viable school option for a much larger number of students in the community. Roots and Wings’ enrollment increased to the maximum provided by its charter (50 students), and the school opened its first waiting list in 2018.
PVCS did not provide transportation to students until the current school leader, Monika Fuller, took over in 2010. She wanted the school to be accessible to all of the community’s school-aged children, regardless of where they lived. After a year of outsourcing to a local company, Fuller worked within the school’s budget to purchase two school buses and hire two bus drivers. Student enrollment increased significantly following this decision, and transportation remains available to any student who wants to attend PVCS.
Both Crossroad and Glacial Hills Elementary have agreements with the district where the charter schools pay the local school district to provide transportation to their students. While these negotiations haven’t always been easy or straightforward, the agreements have made the schools accessible to all students living in their respective communities.
4. Rural charter schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers
Charter school leaders in all geographies often cite human capital as a challenge. However, the rural human capital challenge differs in important ways from that faced by urban charter schools. First and foremost, urban charter schools tend to have large talent pools from which to pull, and, due to their location in cities that have attractive cultural amenities, can often recruit teachers from outside the immediate community. Rural schools, on the other hand, face a significantly smaller local talent pool. This means that filling vacancies can be difficult, especially for specialized positions like special education or advanced content areas. Roots and Wings, for example, looks for teachers who are not only qualified and effective but who also have experience in and passion for the outdoors. Of course, low teacher salaries at rural charter schools compared to the local district — a function of the shoestring budgets school leaders are working with — are also a likely factor.
All of the rural charter schools profiled here report that finding qualified talent is an ongoing challenge, and thus have developed specific strategies to address it. At Crossroad, for example, where 64% of the students are African American, school leaders recruit teachers and staff from Florida A&M University, a historically black university located just 21 miles from the school. At PVCS, school leaders rely on a statewide teacher vacancy portal while simultaneously ramping up their out-of-city and out-of-state recruitment efforts. At Roots and Wings, school leaders recruited teachers from as far away as Texas in order to find those with the right skill sets and match to the school’s culture and mission.
5. Competition for limited resources in rural communities can lead to fraught relationships between charter schools and local school districts
Charter-district relationships are tense in many communities for a variety of reasons. Charter schools are often in direct competition with school districts over limited resources, including funding, human capital, and facilities. In rural areas, these relationships can be particularly charged as rural charters compete for even scarcer resources and even smaller pools of students. As noted above, enrollment fluctuations can have large budgetary impacts on rural charter schools. The same is true for rural school districts, and the prospect of losing even just a few dozen students to a charter school can dramatically change a rural district’s financial outlook.
The leaders of all four schools included in this study indicate at least some tension with the local school district. Community members in Gadsden County told us that when Crossroad started to grow considerably, some school district employees spread negative, inaccurate information about the charter, telling families that it was a private school, or that its leaders cherry-picked students, or that it was still a school for juvenile delinquents. This relationship has softened in recent years — the two systems now have a solid working relationship — but it made things difficult during Crossroad’s early years. In Starbuck, the previous district superintendent refused to allow Glacial Hills Elementary to use one of the district’s empty facilities, resulting in the charter school using an old hospital as its permanent facility. This relationship is also improving, thanks to efforts from the new district superintendent and the district’s own enrollment growth. In Prescott Valley, the superintendent was at best ambivalent about charter schools and concerned about their impact on the community’s social fabric. In Questa, dysfunction among the leadership of the local school district leads it to mostly leave Roots and Wings alone; however, no one we spoke to described the relationship as overly supportive.
Theme 2: State-level education policies designed with urban schools in mind can create unintended challenges for rural schools
The charter school model was founded on the idea of flexibility in exchange for accountability. In most states, charter schools are exempt from a large number of state and district policies and regulations. They have increased autonomy over elements of the school’s model including staffing, budgeting, procurement, curriculum, scheduling, and more. This enables charter schools to adjust to meet the needs of their students. At Roots and Wings, for example, 50 students are educated in three multiage classrooms (grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8). At Crossroad, school leaders created a class to certify all middle schoolers in the Microsoft Office suite, to align with their focus on business.
Even with this flexibility, however, small, rural charter schools struggle to meet the requirements of some of the remaining policies. While many of these requirements make logical sense and were put in place for good reason, it’s likely that legislators never considered the potential challenges they could create for small, rural schools. Eliminating all potentially challenging regulations is not a solution, but it is worth considering how they may differentially affect rural schools and whether there are ways to reduce additional burdens on these schools.
1. School staffing requirements can hinder rural charter schools’ staffing creativity
While charter schools generally have substantial flexibility over their staffing models, there are often state laws — like student-to-teacher ratios and “teacher of record” requirements — that can hinder small, rural charter school leaders’ ability to be creative in solving human capital challenges. At Roots and Wings, for example, they’ve had some tough conversations with their authorizer about staff members filling dual roles, being both a classroom teacher and a part-time administrator. This kind of doubling up of duties makes sense for the tiny school, but can be difficult to square with “teacher of record” requirements from the state.
Staffing requirements can affect non-teaching positions, as well. For example, auditing policies typically require “segregation of duties” for schools’ accounting procedures, meaning that different people must manage different aspects of the accounting process. It’s a perfectly reasonable and wise practice, since it helps reduce the risk of malfeasance. However, in a small school with limited central office staff, parsing out those duties can be a challenge. At Glacial Hills Elementary, for example, the school’s business manager has been responsible for all elements of the school’s accounting and budgeting. On the most recent report from their authorizer, though, Glacial Hills Elementary was docked because it could not demonstrate this segregation of duties — the individual who writes checks on behalf of the school is the same person who keeps the school’s financial records. Deb Mathias, the school leader, is working with the authorizer to hire an accounting firm to take over the school’s budgeting in an effort to comply with this policy. But it’s going to cost the school nearly $15,000, a large amount for a small school on a tight budget.
2. Conflict-of-interest policies can pose staffing challenges for rural charter schools operating in small communities
Conflict-of-interest policies can also pose problems for small, rural charter schools. Many authorizers require key administrative tasks to be handled by different people in an effort to stem fraud, waste, and abuse. And while this makes logical sense, it can be tough in small communities. It is not uncommon for adults in rural areas to be related by blood or marriage to, or have other personal or professional relationships with, many of the other adults living in the community. Finding and hiring teachers, school leaders, and school board members who have no relation to one another can be a challenge.
For example, New Mexico’s Public Education Department has been concerned that Peg Bartlett and Todd Wynward, the founders of Roots and Wings, were also the school’s landlords. In founding the school, they invested their own money to purchase the building in which the school operates, and rented it to the school board. These kinds of arrangements can complicate a school’s independence. For example, if a charter management company owned the facility that it rented to the charter school board, the management company might hold a level of control over the school board, threatening lease non-renewal if the board sought to do something different from what the management company wanted. While this is not always the case, authorizers and policymakers have taken steps to limit these kinds of relationships to help ensure both transparency and school board autonomy. And it likely works better in urban areas, where charter school leaders may well have additional options to rent or lease facilities from other entities. However, in rural communities, charter leaders may not have any options, and creativity related to facilities is necessary. While no actual issues arose at Roots and Wings, Bartlett and Wynward’s approach to avoid further questions was to create a separate LLC that now controls the school’s facility.
At Glacial Hills Elementary, one of the school board members is also on the board of the LLC that owns the school’s facility. While not in conflict with the law, these arrangements can create the perception of a conflict that schools and authorizers typically prefer to avoid. And yet, in a community the size of Starbuck, there are a limited number of adults with the skills and interests needed to be successful board members, making these kinds of duplications difficult to prevent.
Theme 3: Successful rural schools tend to have close and lasting ties to their communities
Rural communities tend to place heavy emphasis on relationships and trust. It’s often important for leaders of any initiative to be from the community, or, at minimum, have close ties to the community. As a result, it can be difficult for “outsiders” to be accepted, let alone be trusted to lead change — especially a change as consequential as opening a charter school.
In order to be successful, rural charter school founders, leaders, and board members must be well-positioned to work within this dynamic. One characteristic that was clear across all four of the schools profiled here was their deep and lasting ties to the local community. Three of the schools were started by members of the community who had lived there for years and had established trusting relationships with community members and key stakeholders. This in-depth, firsthand knowledge of the community helped the founders establish a school that met a felt need in the community, and positioned the school to withstand any opposition that arose. Moreover, all of the schools are currently run by leaders who have established long-standing track records of commitments to their respective communities.
1. Rural charters have school leaders, founders, and/or board members who are trusted members of the community
Communities are not always receptive to “outsiders” coming in to “fix” their perceived problems, a dynamic that is certainly not unique to rural America but may be particularly pronounced. It is critical to rural charter schools’ success that the school’s leadership includes trusted members of the community. Prior to launching Crossroad, Millie Forehand had the trust of families living in Gadsden County because of her long-standing commitment to providing affordable housing to low-income residents through the Community and Economic Development Organization (CEDO), which she launched and ran for 14 years. Community members knew of her track record of success with CEDO, and her work to develop a nascent diversion program for middle schoolers in the county. Further, Forehand grew up in Gadsden, attended Gadsden County Public Schools, and knew about the need for an alternative to the district. Her son, who leads the school today, continues to benefit from the deep relationships his mother had in the community before she founded the school — and Millie Forehand’s role on the board continues to provide continuity and connection to the community.
The founders of Glacial Hills Elementary were all parents and community members living in Starbuck who experienced firsthand the loss of their elementary school. This group of parents built consensus for the charter by reaching out to former Starbuck Elementary teachers and families who felt it was important to have a town school. Though the school received pushback from some in the community who worried about the effect a charter would have on the district, the school benefited from the fact that all of the founders were local parents. Today, the board includes leaders in the community who help steward the school’s local relationships.
Bartlett and Wynward lived in the Taos region for more than a decade before deciding to open Roots and Wings. They deeply understood the culture of the community and identified a need that was unmet by the local school district. Their deep commitment to the community and to providing an educational model distinct from and complementary to the district helped them establish themselves as trusted and reliable leaders in both Taos and Questa.
PVCS deviates from this pattern. The school’s founders did not live in Prescott Valley when they chose to launch the school. Yet, PVCS was able to gain footing in the community anyway. In this circumstance, it is notable that Prescott Valley differs from those in the other schools profiled here. First, PVCS operates in the largest rural community included in our sample, and, unlike the others, it has experienced significant population growth over the last several decades. It’s possible that the community was simply more open to outsiders as a result of its considerable population growth. Moreover, Yavapai County, home to PVCS, has two dozen charter schools currently in operation, and several more have opened and since closed over the past two decades. Charter schools have been a regular component of the community’s education system for a long time. And while not everyone in the community supports them, they’ve at least come to accept them. This likely meant that there were fewer social and cultural barriers for PVCS’ founders to overcome as they launched the school.
2. Rural charter schools are founded as a solution to an expressed gap in the community
To be viable, rural charters need a specific reason to exist. In rural communities, schools frequently play a central role; they are long-standing, trusted institutions and are often one of the only institutions around which the community gathers. Families need a reason to seek out other options, and the reason must be sufficiently compelling to warrant leaving the district school. All four of the charter schools we examined successfully identified and filled gaps in their communities. The gaps that charter schools fill can vary. In some cases, the local district leaves a gap in high-quality options; sometimes, the gap is the lack of any local school whatsoever; and, sometimes, that gap is an alternative setting for students who have struggled in other schools.
In Florida, Gadsden County Public Schools’ enrollment was shrinking and its quality was declining. Teachers and families sought out better options in neighboring Leon County, but this was limited to families willing to relocate or commute. As Crossroad grew in scale, improved its academic performance, and expanded its extracurricular offerings, families began to identify it as a viable alternative to the local district schools that didn’t require them to leave the county. In other words, the declining quality of the local district schools left a gap that Crossroad was able to fill.
In Starbuck, Minnesota, parents launched Glacial Hills Elementary after the local school district closed Starbuck’s elementary school for budgetary reasons. Because of the closure, Starbuck’s elementary-aged students had to be bused up to an hour round trip to attend school in the neighboring town of Glenwood. For Starbuck parents, chartering was the only option to fill the gap left by the closure of Starbuck Elementary.
In Taos County, New Mexico, Roots and Wings is the only school that offers an outdoor learning curriculum in a community that places a high value on outdoor activity and connecting with the natural world. Its small size and family-like culture has also provided a sanctuary for students who have struggled to be successful in other school environments.
In Prescott Valley, PVCS’ leaders stay carefully attuned to the needs of their community and find ways for the school to meet these needs. The school recently expanded its kindergarten program to begin accepting 4-year-olds. While this decision has faced some backlash from the local district superintendent, PVCS’ leaders made the decision as a direct response to demand from parents. The school was also recently approved to be a provider for students with particular special needs, again as a way to meet a need in the local community.
Unlike larger, urban communities that have enough students to accommodate multiple school options that may be fairly similar, in small rural communities, charter schools must be a tailored response to a distinct need. Opening a charter school simply as an “alternative” to the district, when community members have not expressed a desire for an alternative, is likely a losing proposition. One potential exception to this rule is a community like the town of Prescott Valley, which, as described above, is on the larger end of “rural,” has experienced significant population growth, and has a relatively large charter school market. These factors enable the education market to sustain multiple school options. In these larger rural communities, not all of them have to be entirely unique; for PVCS, it may be enough to simply have smaller class sizes and a more hands-on learning environment.
3. Rural charters maintain consistent leadership and/or engagement with school founders
Consistent leadership is key to the success of any school, but given the challenges that rural schools face — and the importance of community connection — leadership stability is a priority. Nationwide, the average tenure of school principals is just four years. It’s notable that in the successful rural charters profiled here, their leadership has been consistent for a decade or more. Kevin Forehand has been the school leader at Crossroad for more than a decade, and he’s also the son of the school’s founder, Millie Forehand. She led the school for a number of years before transitioning to a new role as a board member.
Deb Mathias, the school leader at Glacial Hills Elementary, took over a few months into the second year of the school’s operation and has been there for the 10 years since. Though she’s not originally from Starbuck, she is from rural Minnesota and is close friends with one of the school’s founding teachers. Moreover, three of the school’s founding teachers remain at the school today, a member of the founding team serves as the receptionist, and several board members have served for five or more years.
Peg Bartlett and Todd Wynward founded Roots and Wings nearly 20 years ago, and still remain actively engaged in the school’s success. Bartlett serves as the school’s special education coordinator, physical education teacher, and outdoor camping chaperone. Wynward’s nonprofit organization, the Taos Initiative for Life Together, provides the school with volunteers and some funding for outdoor learning activities. Because of their consistent presence, Roots and Wings has maintained its commitment to outdoor learning, providing students with a truly unique educational experience. Their ongoing engagement has also helped stem any negative effects from the relatively high leadership turnover the school has experienced. Bartlett and Wynward are hoping that the school’s newest leader, Mark Richert, will be in the role for the foreseeable future. He’s lived in Taos for nearly 20 years, giving him the community knowledge and established local relationships to support his success and longevity.
Though PVCS’ founders are less engaged in the school today, its current leaders have been there for nearly a decade, establishing a long track record and demonstrating commitment to the school. The school’s current leader, Monika Fuller, was initially the chief financial officer of both PVCS and its sister school, the Arizona Charter Academy. When the founding director stepped down in 2010, Fuller took over as PVCS’ director. She built relationships and trust with the school’s staff and families during her time as CFO, and was able to carry those relationships into a successful transition to director. In 2011, Fuller’s husband, Mike Fuller, took over as the school’s principal. The two live in Prescott Valley and through years of committed service to the school, have developed the trust of parents and community members.
In all cases, the ongoing commitment of school founders and/or leaders is likely tied directly to the emphasis that rural communities place on trust and relationships. Moreover, because rural charter schools tend to be a direct response to an expressed community need, consistent leadership and engagement of the founders helps ensure the mission of the school remains the same over the long term, continuing to meet the community need for which it was established.
4. Rural charters maintain a strong connection to the community
Rural communities are bound together because of intimate social, cultural, and economic ties. Families in these communities worship together, celebrate major events and holidays together, and attend school together. The opening of a charter school can feel particularly disruptive.
To counter this disruption, successful rural charters create and maintain strong connections with the community through service opportunities, participation in local events, and high rates of parental involvement. Students at Glacial Hills Elementary, for example, have regular engagement with the residents of the assisted living facility that is attached to the school. The school holds concerts for residents, students read with residents, and residents tutor students who are struggling. The assisted living facility is a large employer in the town, so a connection to this organization means its residents, their families, and the facility staff all become familiar with the school.
Students at Crossroad are required to log 200 hours of community service before graduation. They volunteer with local nonprofit organizations and participate in national days of service including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Additionally, local leaders including county council members, church leaders, business leaders, and state representatives are invited in to speak with students and build their connection with the school.
At Roots and Wings, the expeditionary learning model means students are regularly out in the community. Recently, for example, middle school students spent a semester interviewing local farmers and creating online profiles for each farmer to showcase their farm and their produce.
The themes discussed here offer insight into the challenges facing rural charter school leaders, as well as factors that help rural charter schools establish themselves in their communities and build trust and longevity. To learn more about how key stakeholders can benefit from these themes as they consider launching or supporting charter schools in rural communities, see our considerations for stakeholders page.