Over the past year, Kelly Robson, Brandon Lewis, and I visited charter schools in four rural communities across the country. As we drove into town to speak with school and community leaders, we expected to uncover challenges that rural charter schools face which are distinct from those in urban areas — and we did. Our findings are included in a new website and highlight some of the constraints specific to operating a charter school in a rural setting.
But we also found many commonalities between what make these schools tick and the characteristics of successful schools in more urbanized settings. These commonalities were a useful reminder of some fundamental elements of a high-quality school that too often get lost in the shuffle.
First, these schools were exemplars of consistent, local leadership.
Those we spoke to made it clear that their school’s success was enabled by local champions with sustained relationships to the community. The school staff had the community’s trust and confidence. Moreover, in three out of the four schools we visited, the school leader had been in their role for ten or more years, a startling contrast to the national average tenure of just over four years. Schools’ local leadership, and the stability of that leadership, helped the schools grow local roots and sustain their missions and visions.
As of the 2017-18 school year, 809 rural charter schools nationwide serve approximately 256,000 students. Though that’s only about one tenth of all charter schools and students nationwide, it represents substantial growth over the last decade.
Despite the growth, charter schools aren’t always a viable solution to a rural community’s education needs. They can negatively impact the enrollment and finances of local school districts, resulting in the closure or consolidation of long-standing community institutions.
But that’s not always the case. There are some rural communities where charters can and do work.
My team and I recently conducted in-depth case studies of four rural charter schools that are outperforming state and district averages in reading and math. Each of these schools serve a diverse student body. I have a piece in EducationNext today that discusses three factors that seem to facilitate the success of these rural charter schools:
The founders, leaders, and/or board members of these schools have deep ties to the local community.
These rural charter schools were founded as an explicit remedy to a gap in the community’s education offerings.
These rural charter schools maintain consistent leadership and/or engagement with school founders.
As I recently wrote, I’ve spent the last two years leading a body of work here at Bellwether that focuses on the experiences of young people most affected by education fragmentation. These students are served by multiple public systems, change schools frequently, and may not have a single consistent adult to help them navigate a complex web of services and programs.
Our team has interviewed dozens of people directly impacted by these systems. While existing story collection efforts often require struggling people to be vulnerable in front of powerful strangers — which can sometimes cause unintended harm — we were committed to doing things differently.
Check out this behind-the-scenes footage to hear more from me on our approach:
Here are six key strategies we used to collect digital story materials while minimizing the burden on the storytellers:
I write today to share some exciting news: Gwen Baker, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Juliet Squire were promoted this summer, joining the partner team here at Bellwether. We are thrilled about the strong contributions these individuals have made to Bellwether and the field — and for the contributions they will make as part of the partner team.
Bellwether partners lead high-impact projects seeking to improve education outcomes for underserved students. They conduct research, produce publications and other work to share ideas, support clients’ business and strategy needs, and develop our team by investing in the growth of other staff. When we founded Bellwether almost 10 years ago, we always said we wanted this to be a place where people could build meaningful careers and hone skills that would enable them to serve in other leadership roles throughout the field. This news affirms that we are cultivating strong talent who see Bellwether as a valuable place to grow and lead, even as many of you have had the opportunity to work alongside our former teammates in different roles outside of Bellwether.
Learn more about our newest partners below, and please join me in congratulating Gwen, Jennifer, and Juliet on their new roles!
Today, I have a new op-ed in WIRED about what can be learned from recent programs piloting the use of electric school buses. These buses are better for the environment and students’ health, but currently make up less than one percent of the 480,000 school buses operating in the United States.