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State receives more than two dozen charter applications

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| November 8, 2023 12:00 AM

As of its Nov. 1 deadline, the Montana Board of Public Education has received applications from more than a dozen public school districts seeking to establish 26 distinct charter schools across the state.

The proposals were submitted under a new law passed earlier this year that allows for the creation of public charter schools governed by existing public school boards, and for the most part put forward charters that would operate out of existing school facilities. Board members will begin their review in the coming months with the goal of finalizing its approval or denial of each by March.

Six of Montana’s seven AA districts turned in requests for multiple charter schools, including five distinct applications from the Kalispell schools. As the Flathead Beacon previously reported, those proposals include charter schools built around career-based instruction, personalized learning and outdoor-centric education. The other two charters would be housed at existing elementary schools in the district and give parents the ability to combine in-school, online and homeschool instruction.

Applications from the Bozeman public schools seek to advance two pre-existing charter school options in the district: the Bridger Charter Academy, housed at Bozeman High School, and the Bozeman Online Charter. Billings public schools submitted three applications for charters focused on enabling high school students to obtain associate degrees prior to graduation, retaining students at risk of dropping out, and providing support for multilingual students and their families. The Helena public schools filed three applications as well, one aimed at enhancing the district’s Montessori program, another building on its existing alternative program for students who are better served by smaller class sizes, and a third offering families a variety of instructional options including online and in-person classes. 

In Missoula, two applications were filed for an arts-integrated elementary charter and an online character for middle and high school students, and in Great Falls, school officials are requesting approval for a charter dedicated to hands-on training for college students studying to become teachers.

The list also included nine charter applications from smaller districts, among them a trio of proposals from the Bitterroot Valley’s Corvallis public schools. Superintendent Pete Joseph told Montana Free Press that one of those charters if approved will serve as a digital learning outlet for homeschool students and others within the district. A second charter, he continued, seeks to expand and streamline the district’s “gifted and talented” program, while the third would center on career and technical education. All three are aimed at students in grades K-12.

Elsewhere in the Bitterroot, Hamilton Superintendent Tom Korst said a charter proposal aims to blend the district’s existing alternative high school with a broader focus on proficiency-based learning and an emphasis on skilled trades and professional certifications. The latter, Korst added, would include opportunities for students to obtain high school credit for pursuing credentials in fields such as health care, with the University of Montana, Bitterroot Health and other local institutions as potential partners.

“It might be an attractive program for homeschool families too,” Korst said. “Longterm, we hope it can become a training and opportunity center for the whole community.”

At Jefferson High School in Boulder, principal Mike Moodry said a charter application submitted to the board would help enhance its partnership with the nearby Youth Dynamics residential facility to serve both those students and students who may be struggling within the district’s schools. Moodry said he envisions the charter, which could enroll as many as 70 students at the middle and high school levels, offering a blend of core subjects and career-based instruction.

And in Frenchtown, Montana’s new public charter school law is serving as a launchpad for an idea Superintendent Les Meyer said has been in the works for “a while.” The Bronc Fast Track Public Charter, as it’s dubbed on the Frenchtown district’s application to the state, would assist cohorts of college-bound students in completing higher education credits and obtaining associate degrees in league with UM and Missoula College. In fact, Meyer said, the first cohort of fast-track students already started this fall. The charter, if approved, would bring more formality, flexibility and funding to the program next fall, with Meyer anticipating 30-student cohorts at the sophomore, junior and senior levels.

“We thought this would be the simplest way to start doing something that’s a little outside the box,” Meyer said.

Rounding out the list of applications in Montana’s first round of potential public charter schools were proposals from the Park City public schools for a virtual charter geared toward homeschool students, from East Helena for a charter expanding the district’s existing alternative program for middle and high school students, and from the Liberty Elementary district located on the Eagle Creek Hutterite Colony. The last charter, according to the application, would comprise seven separate, existing public school sites on colonies throughout northcentral Montana.

Only one of the 26 applications submitted was not submitted by a public school district. According to that application, the proposed Yellowstone Experiential School would be a new charter school district in Livingston with a planned enrollment of 90 students in grades K-8. The application cites declining enrollment in Park County’s public schools and demand among families for “an intentional, cohesive, measured, and relevant educational alternative” in requesting approval to establish a school built around what it calls “project-based learning.”

Reporter Alex Sakariassen can be reached at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org. The Montana Free Press is a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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