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Kalispell leads the way on public charters

by Daily Inter Lake
| October 29, 2023 12:00 AM

Kalispell Public Schools is venturing into the public charter school realm with an eye on being a leader and innovator for the state’s newest educational opportunity.

School District 5 administrators this month began the processes of applying for permission to establish public charter programs under a new Montana law created this spring through House Bill 549. 

Charter schools are often created for specialized purposes, such as hands-on trades, or hyper-focused on sciences and arts. They are publicly funded and tuition-free, and under HB 549, schools created by the district would be governed by the publicly elected board of trustees.

All of the district’s charter proposals — detailed in today’s front page story — are so-called “school within a school” concepts, meaning they would be housed within an existing school, while also sharing school staff. The charter’s budget, however, would be separate from the traditional school budget.

Of the district’s four charter proposals presented last week, the one that stands out as most likely to sustain and fill a niche locally is the PACE (Personalized Academic and Career Exploration) Academy at Flathead High School. This program with a career path focus would offer high school students work-based learning through internships or apprenticeships.

Flathead Principal Michele Paine noted that industry leaders are eager to connect with local students trained and ready to enter the workforce.

“It doesn’t matter the industry. They all say we have jobs. We have good-paying jobs. We don’t have people to fill those jobs,” she told the school board. 

A charter program offering hands-on learning would strike the right chord for many students who plan to enter the workforce right out of high school, as well as for students who want to use those real-life work experiences in pursuit of a higher education.

The district’s other charter proposals each have merit, as well, but we caution administrators to pursue only those with proven concepts that will attract enough students to justify the resources over the long-term.

Case in point, the public charter program Bozeman launched during the pandemic that offers online learning. Enrollment started at 120 students, but is now down to about 40.

“It’s been difficult,” Bozeman Superintendent Casey Bertram told the Inter Lake. “We launched with five teachers. We’re down to two. We’re barely hanging on enrollment wise.”

Avoiding charters with narrow concepts will be crucial for any district looking to enter this new arena.

Thankfully, there are more than 7,000 charters across 45 states that Kalispell Public Schools can look to for examples of what concepts work, and which ones fall flat. 

Public charter schools present an exciting opportunity to offer students a new way of learning, and Kalispell is taking the right approach in getting ahead of the competition.