Why Not High-Quality Public Charter School Options for Rural States?

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One of the humblest school leaders I have met to date—Marcos Martinez, the chief executive officer and founder of Poder Academy—has achieved what few in the state of Wyoming have. Marcos found a way to not only open two of the four public charter schools in the entire state, but did so in collaboration with the district, and in a state where over 35 percent of its population lives in a rural community. 

Rural schools make up around 27 percent of the public school sector but only 2.6 percent of these schools are charter schools—a major issue when it comes to providing high-quality school options for all students. Wyoming’s charter law, ranked 40 out of 44 in the National Alliance’s Measuring up to the Model Law Rankings, needs improvements such as expanding authorizing options, increasing operational autonomy, ensuring equitable operational funding, and access to capital funding within its charter law. Nonetheless, Marcos’ schools, Poder Academy and Poder Academy Secondary School, are thriving. Marcos has experience in education and community development but what got him involved in the charter movement is “closing the achievement gap,” he said, when discussing his passion for providing great educational options to families.

Poder Academy schools is a K-5 school located in the community of Cheyenne, a stone’s throw away from Denver, Colorado. The school model is focused on a student’s trajectory to college and beyond. Prior to Poder Academy earning its charter, 12 others attempted to start a charter school in the same community. “What really got us on the right path was our first conversation with the Superintendent. Creating a partnership with the local district was essential to addressing the needs of the community, its families, and the students we serve,” Marcos stated.

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Nearly three years from first discussing a need for a high-quality charter school option in Cheyenne, Poder Academy opened its doors. Now serving 300 students, the school has emerged as one of Wyoming’s top performing schools through its fourth year in operation. Students in all grade levels are averaging increases in math and reading and language skills that are well above the national average based on state standardized test results.

Marcos believes the secret sauce to the school’s success is the school culture in parallel with a small school size, represented by a 14-1 student teacher ratio. “A small school size allows both the teachers and administrators to ensure no students slips through the cracks and helps us keep tabs on the high number of students with additional needs,” explains Marcos. Currently, 17 percent of the students that Poder serves have special needs and 15 percent are English learners. Marcos made sure to point out, “In my experience when opening a school in a rural state, resources are limited. That is why it is important to have the cross-pollination of ideas and support systems between districts and charters.” Additionally, he makes it a point to send his staff out to high-performing schools outside of his community and his state to harvest successful practices and teaching methods to implement in his schools.
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Opening a public charter school in a rural setting is more challenging than most would anticipate and support is scarce. In a community with limited per-pupil, philanthropic, and Charter Schools Program (CSP) funding, not to mention lack of facility space makes getting the community on board with change that will ultimately take 2-3 years to come to fulfillment, difficult. With more leaders like Marcos Martinez stepping up to the plate, more great charter schools can flourish in areas of need like rural states and communities.

As National Alliance’s Vice President of Research and Evaluation Susan Aud Pendergrass pointed out in a recent blog, there is one thing clear from EdChoice’s survey on K-12 education—parent demand for charter schools continues to exceed the supply. Other studies have confirmed if they were widely available and transportation were not an issue, enrollment in charter schools would be at least double, if not triple. And as you can imagine, some rural states and communities are in dire straits for better school options. 

Over the past 25 years the charter school movement has expanded its reach to encompass 44 states and Washington, D.C. But there is still work to be done. The National Alliance is on a mission to lead public education to unprecedented levels of academic achievement for all students by fostering a strong charter school movement. In the upcoming weeks, the National Alliance will launch its next strategic plan, with a ten-year goal to triple the number of students who attend a high-quality charter school—most importantly in target geographies such as rural communities.Poder Academy-1.jpg

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