Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Rural charter school splits Oklahoma town, may test state's authority to override local school decisions

Seminole, Okla. (Wikipedia map)
An Oklahoma businessman's success in opening a rural charter school over objections of the local school board could "test the popularity of charters in Oklahoma, and the role of the state in overruling community decisions," Caroline Preston reports for The Hechinger Report, an education journal. "More broadly, it’s a test case for whether these privately operated, publicly funded schools can open in small communities without eroding public education."

Paul Campbell and his family moved from Los Angeles to Oklahoma three years to aerospace manufacturing company Enviro Systems, but had a hard time finding qualified workers in Seminole, a town of 7,300 just east of Oklahoma City. He believed part of the problem was a school system that didn't prepare students for highly skilled labor, and thought he could offer the town a better choice, Preston reports.

At the Academy of Seminole, which opened this past fall to 29 freshmen and sophomores, Campbell has focused on career readiness from the beginning. He's brought in speakers from different careers, and each student is required to choose a career and do a semester-long project on it. That dovetails nicely with Oklahoma's new requirement that all students must develop a career plan in order to graduate.

It sounds like an easy sell in theory, since "Campbell’s can-do, pro-business attitude fits in with the ethos of this working class, Trump-supporting town," Preston reports. But his charter has divided the town since he proposed it. Supporters thought the charter could bring new employers and skilled workers to the town, and liked the school's emphasis on workforce preparation.

Critics worried it would take students and their state funding away, leaving only the poorest children at the town's underfunded public schools, Preston reports. They were also concerned that Campbell didn't have an education background and that his program didn't offer students opportunities they couldn't get from existing programs. And though the school focuses on workplace readiness, locals worried that it might be used to incubate workers for Campbell's company.

Campbell said he met with local school-board leaders several times to discuss how his company could help kids in the system but was rebuffed; board members say that's not accurate. After that, he said, he began planning his own school and submitted an application to the Seminole School District in August 2016 to open one of the state's first rural charters, Preston reports. The board twice voted unanimously to reject the application, but the state board overrode it.

Because rural charters are so rare -- only about 11 percent of the nation's 6,747 are rural -- it's been difficult to predict how this one affect the community. So far, "much of what inspired the charter’s supporters, and troubled its opponents, hasn’t yet come to pass," Preston reports. "The small size is good financial news for the Seminole district, which stands to lose between $3,500 to $9,000 in state funding for every student who departs for the charter. To critics, of course, the small enrollment is evidence that there was never much demand for a charter school in the first place. For his part, Campbell is pointedly unsympathetic to worries over the charter school’s financial impact on the district," His advice: "Adapt."

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