Small district pitches charter school benefits to top state education administrator

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MAYNARD, Iowa (KCRG TV9)- In many states, charter school are an alternative, and sometimes a competitor, to public schools. But the number of charter schools in Iowa has dropped dramatically in recent years.

Iowa Department of Education director Ryan Wise visits a classroom at West Central schools on Friday. The small district in Maynard is one of only two Iowa districts that will have charter school status next fall.

School board members in Dubuque voted in January not to renew the charter designation for Prescott Elementary. Next fall, that will leave only the West Central School District in Maynard and a school in Storm Lake as charter schools in Iowa.

But students, staff and parents in the Fayette County community of Maynard still believe in the benefits. And on Friday, they got the opportunity to pitch the charter concept to Iowa’s top education official.

The district, with just 250 K-12 students, would look about like any small district to visitors.

But under the charter rules, it’s easier for students to earn college and high school credits at the same time.

Mary McDonough is a senior who will get her high school diploma soon But she’s already graduated from a nearby community college at the same time.

“Last night, I was able to graduate with my AA degree and now I tell people I’m finished with two years of college so obviously a big money saver,” McDonough said.

A number of students in Maynard will start at four-year colleges in the fall with the status of a “junior” due to college credits earned under the charter school program.

In the last four years, 22 West Central students have graduated from a community college before getting their high school diplomas with costs paid by the district.

When Iowa Department of Education director Ryan Wise came for a first-time visit to West Central on Friday, it was a story he heard repeatedly from students

Administrators giving Wise the tour said the flexibility of charter rules allow them to do more innovations that aid students.

Wise, though, says other Iowa schools could probably try some new things without going to the time and trouble of seeking a charter designation from the state.

“And whether or not a school is a charter or a traditional school, looking forward and trying to find opportunities for students to engage in the community and workforce is really important,” Wise said.

Wise says unlike many states, where charter schools are common, Iowa lawmakers require school districts to approve charter applications. That’s kept the numbers low.

The number of charter schools in Iowa peaked years ago in the low teens. West Central first got the designation in 2005.

At the end of the year, Dubuque’s Prescott Elementary will no longer be a charter after school board members in January voted not to renew the status.

A majority decided innovation was possible without the trouble to a charter school status.

Steve Milder, a West Central guidance counselor, is the point person for that small district’s charter school program.

He says parents, students and staff at the Maynard school have seen the benefits and wouldn’t want to switch.

“We wanted to get all students trying to look at their futures and take college classes. At West Central, every junior and senior this year has college credits, “ he said.

Director Wise says he familiar with the charter concept and visited schools in other states. But the Friday visit to Maynard was the first time he’d seen how it works in practice at an Iowa school.