At least 2,274 new charter school seats will open up across Idaho this school year.
The growth is part of a multimillion-dollar push led by charter support group Bluum to expand access to Idaho charters.
With Bluum’s help, the publicly funded schools last year gained nearly half of Idaho’s new students. Idaho charters account for about 8 percent of Idaho’s 307,000 students.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Bluum CEO Terry Ryan has said of the growth.
Despite the push, charter schools are still far from meeting Idaho’s demand. A 2018 Idaho Education News survey showed that charter waitlists had the names of nearly 11,000 students. Bluum is working to close the gap by leading a consortium that’s pledged 8,200 new “high-quality” seats over the next five years. A $17.1 million U.S. Department of Education grant supports the push.
Most Idahoans say they generally approve of charters, which, on average, outperform traditional districts. Yet some charters are among the state’s lowest-performing schools, and many have garnered a reputation of underserving minorities and those who live in poverty or have special needs.
Still, school choice advocates say the schools provide much-needed educational options for Idaho families. Leaders in traditional districts, meanwhile, continue to express concerns over funding repercussions stemming from the rapid expansion of Idaho’s charters.
The push for added space
New charter seats stem from the recent construction of three schools and the expansion of two others, Bluum CFO Marc Carignan told EdNews.
Here’s a breakdown of the growth, and where it’s happening:
- Forge International School, Middleton: 653 new seats.
- Treasure Valley Classical Academy, Fruitland: 541 new seats.
- Elevate Academy, Caldwell: 487 new seats.
- Gem Prep Pocatello, Chubbuck: 369 new seats.
- Compass Public Charter School, Meridian: 224 new seats.
At least one other Bluum consortium school has found new space to operate. Newly approved Island Park Charter School will this year provide 30 new seats in a one-room building in the rural East Idaho tourist town.
Charters made their Idaho debut over 20 years ago. Today, more than 55 charters serve approximately 24,000 kids, or about 8 percent of the state’s public school population.
Altogether, Ryan and Carignan said students will fill slightly more than 1,700 of these seats during the 2019-20 school year. The rest will fill in as the the schools continue to add new students.
“This announcement (of 2,274 new seats) is about the building of physical capacity in Idaho,” Carignan said.
To put that number into perspective, Idaho’s average school district enrollment in 2018-19 was 2,463 students.
Click here to view Bluum’s progress toward its larger goal to expand charters statewide.
‘Of course the district is preparing for a loss of students’
With Bluum’s help, Gem Prep Pocatello recently secured space in a bygone Chubbuck Sears department store. The $6 million purchase and renovation allows the K-6 charter to expand from last year’s 180 elementary students, formerly housed in a bygone private school, to 580 K-12 students by the 2022-23 school year.
Gem Prep principal Gerald Love last month touted the added choice his school’s expansion will bring to students in the Pocatello-Chubbuck area.
“This will be great for so many kids,” Love said of the school’s emphasis on college prep and career-technical learning.
Love also touted the school’s performance. Gem Prep students surpassed statewide averages on both the state’s most recent early reading and ISAT tests.
But Love also acknowledged the financial impacts charters can have on school districts in a state where K-12 funding is based on average daily student attendance. Most Gem Prep Pocatello students are — and will be — transplants from the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, Love said.
Pocatello-Chubbuck Superintendent Doug Howell did not respond to a request for comment on how he expects Gem Prep’s continued expansion to impact his district’s schools.
Leaders in other districts have been more vocal.
Caldwell School District spokesman Allison Westfall said 1,140 new seats slated to open at both Forge International School and Elevate Academy this school year round out to an anticipated reduction in staffing and operations funding at Caldwell of at least $1 million.
Westfall also pointed to the expected opening of Mosaics charter school, in 2020. Also located within Caldwell’s boundaries, Mosaics plans to expand to 540 students by 2024.
“Of course the district is preparing for a loss of students and is adjusting staffing,” Westfall said, adding that Caldwell has already left 10 open staff positions unfilled.
The Boise School District has also lost students to charter expansion in recent years. The district last year announced a marketing and promotional campaign aimed at attracting and retaining area students.
Leaders in both Idaho Falls and Fruitland said they are aware of charter expansions in their districts, but added that it was either too early or too difficult to pinpoint the impacts area charters will have.
Ryan said Bluum would like to partner with districts to launch regional career tech academies, STEM academies or other school options that they can’t offer on their own.
“We would work with these districts to help them apply for federal charter school start-up dollars and provide guidance and support on how to structure the school governance, charter agreements, facility improvements,” Ryan said.
Still, Ryan added, Bluum will continue to support charter school educators and community leaders who have “a strong academic plan, a viable school leader or leadership team, and demonstrable community demand to launch charter schools separate from their local school district.”
DISCLOSURE: Idaho Education News and Bluum are both funded by grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.
Data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. Schrader served on the founding board of Elevate Academy.