Providing new options

CLARKFIELD - People in Clarkfield, population 944, are accustomed to driving to larger towns when they're looking for competition between retail stores.

CLARKFIELD - People in Clarkfield, population 944, are accustomed to driving to larger towns when they're looking for competition between retail stores.

But when it comes to shopping for schools, the competition is found right at home: This year, the Clarkfield Area Charter School opened its doors as one of 131 charter schools operating in Minnesota.

It's the second charter school to open in the Yellow Medicine East School District, a matter of concern for its superintendent. Dwayne Strand told local legislators one week ago that the Clarkfield and ECHO charter schools serve to take away students and consequently state aid from the public school district.

YME schools operate the H.A. Haag Elementary School in Clarkfield. Its enrollment dropped from over 100 students last year to 38 in grades K- 5 at the start of this school year.

The superintendent warns that the district could eventually be forced to close it.


Just blocks away on the south edge of town, Clarkfield Area Charter School offers classes for 61 students in grades K-6, including 53 who are open enrolled from the YME district.

"Our goal is not to hurt the public school, but to be an option,'' said Gail Hanson, business manager at the charter school. Hanson and Steve Koetter, the school's director who also serves as physical education instructor, say it's all about choice.

They say it's unfair to blame the Clarkfield Area Charter School for any financial difficulties the YME district may be facing. The Minnesota Department of Education reports that 271 students open enroll out of the YME district. That means that roughly 80 percent of the district's open enrollment students are going somewhere besides the Clarkfield Area Charter School, Hanson noted.

She and Koetter are also upset by allegations that the charter school's curriculum is not different from that offered at the public school. Koetter said the school uses a core knowledge program and focuses its attention on the different ways individual children learn.

The focus on individual learning is made possible by small class sizes, he said. The school's charter allows for no more than 15 students per class.

The belief that small is better is at the heart of the school's founding charter. The district has state approval to add grades seven and eight in the future, but its total enrollment will not exceed 105.

Koetter said the school also emphasizes "respect'' and is especially vigilant about squelching any type of bullying. Nowhere is that commitment more apparent than on the school's recess grounds. Volunteers help make certain there is at least one adult for every 15 students on the grounds.

Koetter said his 19 years of experience in the public education system taught him that many of the problems with bullying originate on the recess grounds. It's not uncommon for one para-professional to supervise 30 to 50 students, he explained.


The charter school's commitment to small class sizes is made despite limited finances. The charter school relies on the state's pupil aid formula for its operating revenues, said Hanson. It has no authority to tax, and there is no second chance. If it were to enter into a statutory operating deficit, "the doors would be locked,'' said Hanson.

As a result, the school operates on a very tight budget. "You're looking at it,'' Hanson said, referring to herself and Koetter as the school's entire administrative team.

The school turned to foundations and donated items from other schools for chairs and tables for its classrooms and offices.

It's starting teacher salaries are lower than those of the public district by $2,000, Hanson said.

Despite the financial limitations, the district had no trouble recruiting a well qualified faculty, according to Koetter and Hanson. The school's seven classroom teachers are all licensed instructors. They represent a mix of both experienced and new teachers.

The charter school is located in a former commercial building that was remodeled for the school by its private owners. Charter schools are not allowed to own buildings or property, but receive state lease aid. The state provides $1,200 per student per year for lease payments.

The building will be expanded this year to include a multi-purpose area so that physical education classes and recesses can be moved indoors. A new classroom and utility room will also be part of the expansion.

The charter school is receiving $180,000 in federal start up funding during each of its first three years. The funds can only be used to purchase materials, such as textbooks or desks. "It sounds like a lot, until you start spending it,'' said Hanson.


The charter school is a non-profit organization governed by a seven-member board. Four of its members must be teachers and the other three must be parents. That arrangement assures that teachers and parents have a direct role in the school's curriculum and financial performances, according to Hanson.

What the school lacks in finances it made up for in community support, she said. Over 400 people attended an organizational meeting for the school when it started, and the school relies on a long list of volunteers. "We have tremendous community support,'' she said.

Both are optimistic about the school's future. The desire to maintain a school in the community, and have local control, are very important to residents, said Koetter.

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