Oklahoma charter school becomes lightning rod in debate over rural education

Last Updated by Alex, Baumhardt on


This audio story about the impact of charter schools in rural communities is based on a story produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger's higher-education newsletter.

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Paul Campbell came to the small town of Seminole, Oklahoma, to run an aerospace company. But he was having trouble recruiting workers, in part, he believed, because potential employees were reluctant to move their kids to an underperforming school district. The average ACT score among Seminole students was lower than the state average and the local high school was in an old grocery store.

He was in the process of recruiting a manager who would have had to move to Seminole with her son from Florida. The woman declined the job offer after investigating the local high school. Campbell says she told him, "I can't put him in that school."

Soon after, Campbell submitted an application to open his own charter high school in Seminole. It would focus on college and career preparation, and it would be located on the campus of a local community college. Students would earn dual college and high school credits. The local school board rejected the plan.

"I'm sure they thought: 'Here's this outsider coming in thinking he can change us,'" Campbell says.

The local school board denied Campbell's application to open the school. Twice.

Alfred Gaches, the school superintendent, says he voted against the charter each time because the applications seemed incomplete.

"They didn't have anyone who had had any experience in a school district," Gaches says.

He says the charter school backers lacked knowledge about the most basic elements of running a school, like graduation requirements, formatting a transcript and knowing how credits are earned.

"You can't have kids flying by the seat of their pants every day and say that's what's best for them," Gaches says. "That's not in the best interest of kids."

Ultimately, Campbell stepped around the local school board. He took his application to the State Board of Education, which approved it. When the Academy of Seminole charter high school opened this past fall, with just ninth and tenth grades, it became one of only three rural charter schools in Oklahoma.

Caroline Preston, a senior editor at The Hechinger Report, went to Seminole. She says many people in the town didn't really understand what a charter was before Campbell tried to opened his school.

Preston interviewed a local attorney who told her, "I was concerned that the charter school was basically a private school in sheep's clothing."

One former school board member told Preston that he worried students would be a free pool of labor for Campbell's company. The greatest fear held by the school board was that the new charter school would threaten funding and support for the local public high school, which was already struggling.

Preston says Seminole is at "an interesting intersection of a bunch of questions." Like whether public schools are adequately preparing kids for careers, and whether that's even their function. And most fundamentally, she says, "whether charters can be helpful or are harmful in smaller communities."

Right now the charter has just 30 students enrolled, but Campbell hopes to add more grades and students. He also hopes to open other charters in rural America. Many school board members in Seminole are still skeptical of Campbell's intentions, but he says he has nothing to hide.

"I have a lot of negative things that are about me," Campbell says, "but transparency is not one of them. My agenda is really clear. I want to help rural kids."

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