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Charter status keeps small school alive
By Rob Schmitz
Minnesota Public Radio
October 5, 2001
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Last spring, the Winona Area Public School District threatened to shut down Ridgeway Elementary, the smallest and most remote school in the district, because of low enrollment. In response, the community of Ridgeway and local educators worked together to revive the school by applying for - and receiving - charter status. Making the transition to charter kept a small school alive.

Students at the Ridgeway charter school in Winona County have been working together to write the school's mission statement. These students are holding a draft of the mission statement, which reads:

We, the students of Ridgeway Community School, promise to work with our families and teachers to promote responsible life-long learning that values cooperation, respect and a sense of tradition. We value our rural community, and promise to be of service to our school and others.

MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)
 
Students in Mrs. Sebo's homeroom are looking up definitions for the big words they've found in their school's new mission statement. Words like "self-directed." The faculty at Ridgeway Charter School in southern Winona County want their students to be able to understand the foundations of their school, now that it is an independent, self-directed charter school. Just a month ago, Ridgeway got the charter designation, after Winona officials threatened to shut it down due to low enrollment.

Charter schools in Winona aren't anything new. In fact, the first charter school in the state was established here. But using the charter process to revive a dying school is unusual, and it may be part of a growing trend for rural schools that are threatened to become the next victims of school consolidation.

In the classroom, Sally Bailly is carefully holding one of three chickens that kindergartner Isaak Pape has brought in for show and tell. Its activities like this that Bailly, the director of Ridgeway, says don't happen at big schools because of bureaucratic obstacles.

Ridgeway has 59 kindergarten-through-fifth grade students, three full time teachers, and three classrooms. The building is a tiny brick box kept afloat by a rolling sea of corn and soybean fields - the hills of southern Winona County. It's as close to the turn of the century one-room schoolhouse a public school gets these days. Bailly wants to keep it that way.

"From the turn of the century, look at the success our nation had with those people that were trained in those schools. There's a track record there," says Bailly. "I do think there's a lot of people who don't want their child in the 'mega-schools,' that they prefer the smaller environment."

Charter schools give teachers and parents control over all aspects of education - from school policy decisions to curriculum choices. In return, the school is responsible for raising money to pay for many of the costs its school district would normally cover.

Ridgeway will receive more than $500,000 in state and federal startup grants, but only during its first three years. Bailly says the state's per student allotment will be enough to cover the school's expenses after that, as long as enrollement remains above 40 students. She thinks Ridgeway will stay above this threshold, because she says parents in surrounding communities are tired of sending their children to consolidated schools located in the bigger cities of the region.

Ridgeway charter school director Sally Bailly talks with one of the 59 students who attend the small rural school in Winona County. Bailly says the school has the feel of a turn-of-the-century one-room school house, and she wants to keep it that way.
(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)
 
Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, says the popularity of small schools like Ridgeway seems to be on the rise nationwide.

"All over the country, school districts are thinking that 'bigger is better' was a serious mistake. All over the country people are setting up small schools. This is clearly a national trend," he says.

According to Nathan, some of these small schools begin, or - as in Ridgeway's case - are kept alive, as charter schools. He notes that in Colorado, many rural schools have been revived via the charter process. In Minnesota, at least three other rural schools have been revived in this manner, and only one of them, Toivola-Meadowlands charter in St. Louis County, was ultimately forced to close. Winona Area Public School District Superintendent Eric Bartleson admits he is skeptical - yet hopeful for Ridgeway's success. He says allowing Ridgeway to go charter was a difficult decision, but to him, it felt like the right thing to do.

"In Ridgeway, that was it. That was the only symbolic piece of community left other than the governmental unit. In some ways, I think the revitalization of the school is going to revitalize, or at least continue, a strong community," Bartleson says.

Bartleson says he wonders how long the community will put in the extra work to sustain Ridgeway. The students and faculty of this small prairie school hope they have what it takes to keep their school - and their town - alive.

More Information
  • Center for School Change
  • Minnesota Association of Charter Schools
  • Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning