I was going to title this column “What are charter schools?” but “What’s good about charter schools?” sounds more interesting. Most of us have some idea of what charter schools are, but what purpose do they serve?

Before I give you a little history of the charter school movement, let’s understand that charter schools are public schools, who have their own school boards and receive public funds and whose missions are a bit different than regular schools. If they didn’t do things differently, they wouldn’t be a charter school. It’s the out of the box thinking that makes them a charter school and this is one of the many reasons why communities should welcome them.

This isn’t to say that our traditional or regular public schools aren’t also doing things differently to help kids find success. On the contrary, most parents still choose to send their children to the regular public schools, which account for 93 percent of the student population. It also should be recognized that the regular public schools often work in cooperation with charter schools (e.g. busing).

Although Minnesota was the first state to create charter schools in 1991 (we now have 197), there were prototypes of charter schools as early as the '40s and '50s. How so?

When the GI’s returned home from WWII, many of them took advantage of the GI Bill to attend college. A high number of GI’s went into teaching to address the need for more teachers as a result of the baby boom. Jobs were plentiful.

State Normal Schools changed their names to State Teacher’s Colleges. It was a boom time for education. If you had a master’s degree in education you could pretty much name your salary and location. (Unions would come on the scene later. Contracts were individually negotiated.)

At this time teacher colleges wanted to ensure that they were adequately preparing teachers, so the legislature approved the formation of college laboratory schools. These were public schools, receiving public funds but located on the campuses of our state colleges including Bemidji. These lab schools were meant to be a place where teachers could try new practices and whose classrooms would be available for teacher education majors to “practice” teaching.

I was fortunate to teach in the Mankato Wilson Campus School located on the campus of Mankato State College in the early 1970s. It was exactly what the Minnesota Legislature had intended it to be: innovative and experimental. It was a k-12 public school open to all students in the Mankato district. Minnesota lab schools eventually closed but they were a forerunner for today’s charter schools.

Bemidji is fortunate to have four charter schools plus a host of regular public schools, alternative programs (ALC and Lumberjack), two parochial schools (St. Phillips and St. Mark’s) and a Christian academy (Heartland). There are also several more programs for kids with special needs. That’s a lot of choices for a rather small community. Each charter school has a distinct purpose.

Trek North, for example, provides wilderness experiences and outdoor skill development. Voyageurs Expeditionary High School provides hands-on learning, service to others and environmental stewardship. Schoolcraft Learning Community provides small group settings emphasizing individualized instruction, project orientation and teamwork. Bemidji’s newest charter school, Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners (AWCL) provides students with the opportunity to engage in collaborative and purposeful learning experiences that go beyond the walls of the school. Obviously, each of the schools does more than what I reported but all of them promote small class sizes.

Why are charter schools important? I choose to go to a different dentist than who my wife chooses. I also choose to go to a different doctor. I like to go to one particular grocery store, you may go to another. I like to fish in Lake Julia, you may choose Lake Bemidji. What if we all had to go to the same doctor, the same dentist, shop at the same store and fish in the same lake? I don’t think we would like it.

It took us a long time in education but we finally realized that one school does not fit all students. Kids have lots of needs and one school, regardless how hard they try, just can’t do what a variety of schools can do. All are good but one school is better for a particular student than the others. Charter schools provide us with other choices and that’s good.

We would have fewer kids graduating, fewer kids attending college, fewer kids finding success in schools, more discipline referrals, more expulsions, more disgruntled parents, more disgruntled teachers were it not for charter schools.

Charter schools are especially important in areas where there are concerns with absenteeism, test scores and graduation rates. This is why you see a host of charter schools in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. Charter schools serve to give students a second chance and give them hope. Bemidji can be proud of the variety of school choices it provides. They are a good start.

Riddle: How is it possible to make antifreeze if you know nothing about chemistry. (You take away her sweater.) Charter schools give kids the opportunity to think a bit differently.

100 percent graduation

Thanks to Lakes Market and Liquor for putting a 100 percent notice on their electronic flashing sign and for Keith’s Pizza for making 600 flyers to distribute.

Parents can help their children graduate when they:

  • Select schools that fit the special needs of their children

  • Pay more attention to how a particular school shapes its programs to fit the needs of students

  • Choose schools that maintain high expectations but still find ways to help all students enjoy learning

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.