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Charters Off the Beaten Path: A Different Kind of Roadtrip

This has been a good week. I got to write what I hope you thought was a funny April Fools’ Day post, and yesterday I had the pleasure of highlighting some exciting developments in what is quickly shaping up to be another year of school choice. The week before that, I talked about the awesome work urban charters are doing across the nation. But for all our talk of urban charters (which only makes sense given that most charters are in or around cities), we don’t often get to explore the world of rural charters.

“Explore” doesn’t necessarily have to mean what nerds like me usually think it means. Sure, numbers and studies are great, but there’s something to be said for getting out and physically exploring charter schools off the beaten path. Maybe that’s why I was so interested by an edu-story today highlighting a special kind of road trip by some folks in Pagosa Springs. The article was written by Bill Hudson.

Ursala, Megan and I serve on the board of directors of the Pagosa Charter School Initiative, a new non-profit corporation that hopes to open a public charter school — open to all children and families, tuition-free — by the fall of 2017.

Megan, Ursala and I were on a research mission — visits to five Colorado charter schools in the Grand Junction area, hoping to learn more about how they are being operated and why they were started. The board of our Pagosa Springs non-profit, the Pagosa Charter School Initiative (PSCI), has planned trips to about a dozen charter schools in various parts of the state, founded upon various educational models.

This trip started out with a trip to Vision Charter Academy in Delta, Colorado. For those not familiar with the area, it isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. Yet Vision isn’t really a transplant; the first of its current three campuses sprung up in Paonia, Colorado, about 40 miles away. The area has its own unique culture, which the article helpfully outlines:

… Paonia, Colorado, population about 1,500, located about 40 miles east of Delta. Paonia’s traditional economy was built upon coal mining and agriculture, two industries that we commonly associate with right-wing Republican values. Then in the 1960s and ’70s, the free-thinking hippies escaping from Corporate America discovered Paonia as an ideal place to form communal living situations based on agriculture and art production. These two groups shared at least one thing in common: a general distrust of the government-run education industry.

That unique backdrop has helped Vision offer an experience tailored to the unique communities it serves. Teri Kinkade, the charter’s lead administrator, explains:

Vision Charter Academy started as Vision Home and Community Program, based on parents who were teaching at home. And bringing together ‘community educators’ — as we called them — who taught all kinds of things in the community, from welding to blacksmithing to glassblowing to art, that kind of thing. And it started in Paonia, so there were a lot of artisans — and the history is really important, because we serve a lot of that same purpose now.

So Vision Home and Community brought together groups of people that you probably wouldn’t normally see working together. We had large numbers of real right-wing Christian families, and left-wing ‘Unschooling’ and Waldorf-school type families. And they came together to create a school and access public funds to support what they wanted for their kids. But they believed, fiercely, in their right to educate their own children. And so, it really started a great movement.

Very cool. Charters exist to grow and innovate in ways that better serve their communities, and that sounds like exactly what Vision has done in rural Colorado.

The PCSI team’s charter road trip continues, and the next part has yet to be authored. I may not agree with all of Mr. Hudson’s viewpoints in the article, but I very much appreciate the spotlight he’s giving to charters that otherwise don’t get a lot of limelight. I’m looking forward to hearing about the next school he and his compatriots visit.

It’s great to talk about urban charters and the amazing results they achieve for underserved populations of kids. But it’s also important for us to remember that are folks doing some very neat stuff even far away from the lights of Denver.

Happy Friday, and I’ll see you next week!