Like many towns its size, Marine on St. Croix, Minn. – population 694 – is all too familiar with the challenge of keeping a small rural school alive.
A years-long battle to stop the town's only public school from closing came to an end earlier this year, with the district citing low enrollment rates as reason for shutting it down. In June, Marine Elementary School sent students off to summer break for the last time, marking what could have been the end of a nearly-170-year history of education in the town.
Where one school door closed in Marine on St. Croix, however, another promptly opened. River Grove, a K-6 charter school established and run by members of the local community, welcomed its inaugural student body in August, drawing 166 students from Marine on St. Croix and the surrounding area.
With an emphasis on outdoor learning and place-based lesson plans, River Grove is not an exact replacement for its traditional public predecessor. But its existence reflects a subtle yet notable trend across rural America in recent decades, as some small towns hit by school closures and consolidation consider charter schools as a way to re-establish or retain community schools.
"In rural areas ... some communities are seeing chartering as a resource rather than a threat," says Paul T. Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.
Observers say charters are not a typical solution – and not without pitfalls, such as a complicated and lengthy application process. But when the alternative is no school at all, some places – in states including Idaho and Oregon – are willing to try, especially to preserve a valued community hub.
Those who live in and study small towns say a school can offer a rural locale social, economic, and political benefits that can't be replicated by any other type of business or institution. Residents of some of these towns see maintaining a school as essential to the survival of their community.
"We have the church and the gas station and the general store, but the school is really a centerpiece of the community," says Ele Anderson, office manager at River Grove and mother of a sixth-grade student there. "That cohesiveness was going to be lost if we didn't keep a school."
Not a typical charter setting
Charter schools are more often thought of as options in urban settings, where professional management groups such as KIPP or Achievement First have made inroads. Less frequently discussed are the 16 percent of charter school students living in rural areas, attending schools that often look quite different – both in management and content – from their urban counterparts.
Nationally, about 44 percent of all charters are professionally managed by either a non-profit Charter Management Organization (CMO) or a for-profit Educational Management Organization (EMO), according to data from 2014-15. Just 19 percent of rural charters are operated by CMOs or EMOs, however, with 81 percent run independently, often by local community groups, based on data from 2009-10.
In rural places affected by public school consolidation, the argument for keeping a community school through chartering often extends beyond academics. A school can provide a small town with economic benefits, employing residents and consequently helping out local businesses, notes Mara Tieken, an associate professor of education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Less tangibly, Professor Tieken and others say, a school can be a powerful force for building relationships between members of the community and giving a town an identity.
"In some rural places, [losing a school] can be pretty devastating," she says. "As we think about rural sustainability … schools need to be an important part of that conversation."
In Minnesota, for example, River Grove founders say the school was born out of a growing desire for a community-run, community-centric education option. (They note that the process to establish the charter had already begun before the closure of Marine Elementary School.)
Nurturing a connection with the town
Part of working toward rural sustainability at River Grove and other charters involves nurturing a deeper connection between students and their hometowns through place-based education and involvement with the local community. At River Grove, this means lots of outdoor time and hands-on science lessons to reflect the natural setting of Marine on St. Croix.
The Sugar Valley Rural Charter School, a community-run school in Loganton, Pa., employs a similar strategy to bolster students' appreciation of the local farming culture. The charter school, founded by a group of parents in 2000 after the closure of Loganton's longtime K-12 public school, also teaches the region's agricultural history to its 485 students.
"I think it’s important that we don't lose that," says Tracie Kennedy, the school’s chief executive officer. "They need to understand how people in the Valley worked hard and what they did to create the economy we live in now."
The goal of place-based learning at Merrimac Community Charter School in Merrimac, Wis., is to instill in students a sense of pride in where they come from, according to Sid Malek, lead teacher at the school, which was established in 2006. The school transitioned from a traditional public elementary school to a charter, through an effort led by school employees.
To encourage relationships between students and members of the community, the school has neighbors volunteer to give lessons in areas of expertise such as gardening, baking, and art.
"For kids to learn about their place means they're going to care about it," Malek says. "And that's what we want them to do as adults as well."
Charters not always embraced
As in urban neighborhoods, charter schools aren't always fully embraced by rural communities, where some critics argue that they draw students and funds away from already-struggling traditional public schools.
"Closing a community's school always has consequences, and this is true whether a charter opens in its place or not," says Karen Eppley, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "While the charter option can keep a school in the community, the charter often brings a host of new problems."
Charters can be a "significant drain" on a district's finances, Professor Eppley and other critics note. They also often employ less experienced teachers, and have the potential to divide a community between families who send their children to the charter school and those who do not.
Community tensions aside, the charter application process requires time, money, and a certain level of educational and bureaucratic know-how – resources that may not be available in smaller or poorer communities, notes Terry Ryan, chief executive officer of Bluum, an organization that works with rural charter schools in Idaho.
"It works if you've got the right people," Mr. Ryan says. "But it's hard to have those ingredients come together in a small town."
Seventeen years after its founding, the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School is still reflecting on whether it's been successful in filling the void left in the community by the traditional public school.
There have been challenges, certainly, and not all in the local community have fully embraced the school, acknowledges Carla McElwain, one of the original founders of the charter. But still she answers, firmly, "Yes."
"We're quite proud of it," she says, citing the school's newly constructed 15-room building as evidence of success. "We must be doing something right."
Ms. Kennedy, the school's CEO, isn't so sure the charter school has completely filled the void. All in all, she says, the school-community relationship has vastly improved over the past two decades. But she doesn't quite feel that the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School has been "100 percent successful yet" in its goal of becoming a "hub of the community."
Back in the days of the traditional public school, she recalls, high school sports were a popular attraction for locals. She's hopeful that building a new gymnasium and expanding the charter school's athletic offerings will help rally neighbors around something to root for.
One month into River Grove's existence, administrator Drew Goodson is also hopeful. For now, he says, the school's goal is simple: to stay open. But his vision for the future of River Grove is more ambitious.
"We have the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child," he says. "We want to use the whole community to educate our kids and really be entrenched so that generations of kids can come here."