Charter schools expand their reach

Not that long ago, children were taught in a one-room schoolhouse—even up until 1967 when the last one closed. Since the early days of public education, the process of teaching children has certainly been evolving.

One of the most recent educational evolutions is charter schools, a public education option available in many cities and, increasingly, in suburbs and rural areas as well.

A relatively new form of public school, charters began in 1992 in Minnesota, and evolved greatly over the decades, with many focusing their curriculum on a specific topic – aviation, STEM, the arts, or a foreign language, for example – that attracts students from across the school district.

Charter schools are designed to offer options to students who may learn in non-traditional ways or who have a specific area of interest. Studies are mixed as to the long-term benefits of charter schools, but most agree they provide at least an equal education to a traditional public school. And students who need a different learning environment or who have a specific interest may often thrive in one of these alternative charter school setting.

Charter school growth

Since 1992, charter schools have sprung up across the country, many in urban districts, with a focus on raising the achievement levels of underprivileged populations—and the popularity has continued to grow. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of U.S. students attending charter schools between 2000 and 2017 increased from 0.4 million to 3.1 million. In the 2000-01 school year, just 2% of schools were charter schools, but by 2017-18, that percentage had more than tripled to 7%.

Charter schools aren’t just limited to urban districts, however. By 2017, nearly a quarter of charter school students lived in suburban areas, and more than 250,000 students attend charter schools in rural areas around the country.

Charters finding success through innovation

Of course, the availability and access of charter schools depends greatly on where you live. Governed by state laws that can vary wildly from each other, charter schools are very much dependent on the regulations set in place by policymakers. National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President and CEO Nina Rees elaborates:

“Charter schools are not a one-size-fits-all value proposition, and state laws governing their creation have a huge impact on their quality and ability to innovate.”

In Colorado – which the Alliance ranked #2 in its list of states with “mature” charter school laws – three schools are finding success in non-urban settings with specific focus areas designed to appeal to a unique student audience.

Colorado Skies Academy, a new Charter School for grades 6–8
Colorado SKIES Academy, a new Charter School for grades 6–8

Colorado SKIES Academy – which held a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month – lives up to its name, placing a large emphasis on aerospace-related education for middle-schoolers. With a 27,000-square-foot, non-traditional campus on the grounds of Centennial Airport in Englewood – and a focus on project-based learning and a STEM-centered curriculum – SKIES is proving that charter schools can work outside an urban setting.

Another Colorado charter school, Colorado Military Academy, offers a different type of learning opportunity. Located in Colorado Springs (also home to the Air Force Academy), this charter focuses on “developing strong leaders of character” while emphasizing a STEM-focused curriculum. Students enjoy a curriculum that partners classroom learning and real-life experiences through partnership with the Civil Air Patrol.

Over in Golden, Compass Montessori School adheres to the Montessori method of self-directed learning through doing, while offering a unique “Farm School” curriculum. With three components – Farm, Community and Kitchen, and Store – the Farm School creates an “interdependent micro-economy,” where students learn real-world skills in farming, preparing food and selling the products to the local community.

The distinct missions and methods of these charter schools set them apart from other Colorado public schools and provide options for those looking to encourage a specific interest or who are interested in a different method of education. The success of these three prove there’s a desire for charter schools outside the confines of a city.

The future of charter schools

Charter schools will never replace traditional public schools, but they’re often a welcome addition for families looking for other options for their students. And, as the three Colorado schools are proving, charter schools can thrive outside the typical urban environment—providing access and alternatives to students no matter where they live.

In fact, the growth of charter schools outside of urban areas is important to the success of the movement. In fact, the Education Post cites a 2015 report that argues how crucial the suburbs are to charter school growth:

“Growth in non-urban areas is essential to charter schools’ future and that middle-class Millennials with children have an interest in charters. Parents in their ‘20s and ‘30s seeking an unconventional education for their children may not have the financial resources to enroll them in private schools, but with their smaller class sizes, nontraditional teaching methods and opportunities for parental engagement, charter schools offer an attractive alternative for Millennials.”

Charter schools are certainly a growing educational option we expect to continue to evolve in the future. Innovation and constant improvement lie at the core of high-quality education, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Chris Heinz is a partner and Greg Porter is a senior project architect at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including charter, public and private K-12 and higher education. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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