How Walter Chen Is Building a Charter School That Reflects the Diversity of Its South Seattle Community

Walter Chen, the founding principal of a new Green Dot public middle school set to open in south Seattle this fall, has a pretty simple vision for the school: “I want it to be a rigorous, joyful place,” he said.

Simple, on the one hand, but incredibly complex when you think about what it was like to actually be in middle school. In my experience, “rigor” plus “middle school” did not typically equal “joy.”

But the more I hear him talk about it, the more I get the sense that maybe Walter, if anybody, can pull it off.

For one thing, he understands that before they can feel joy at school, kids have to first feel safe and accepted. More than that, though, he understands through lived experience the nuances of inequity in education — especially in the Seattle area, where Chen was born and raised.

“My parents were immigrants from Taiwan and always deeply concerned about education,” Chen said. “When we were really young they moved us [from Kent] to Mercer Island because they had just heard about the great public schools there.”

It took a few years for the impact of that move and for an understanding of what had been left behind, both in Kent and in Taiwan, to fully unfold, but as a young college student in Southern California, an education class led to an eye-opening experience for Walter.

“Because I got the opportunity to go out and visit schools,” Chen said, “I really was for the first time opened to the idea that not everyone has the same educational opportunities and outcomes, that your zip code, your race, your family’s income can change the complete trajectory of your life.”

Coming to understand that truth was enough to push Chen into a career in education, and after earning his BA in Economics at Pomona College and Master of Education at UCLA, he taught middle-school math in a public school in South-Central Los Angeles for six years.

“I really got to see what it was like to work in an urban school and really partner with families,” Chen said. “I got to see the impact of not just being a school employee, showing up to work and teaching kids, but spending time in the community, going out on the weekends to the soccer games and to the swap meets and things like that. It was really a true community feel.”

When Walter and his wife moved to Seattle together, he sought another highly impacted school community to serve and to call home, but he also “started thinking bigger picture,” he said.

“How could I impact more students at a time,” he asked himself, “and really make a change in educational outcomes for kids?”

His answer led him back to school, and in completing the Danforth Program for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington, he refined his view of education as an urgent social justice issue, and it marked the beginning of putting down new roots in the Rainier Valley.

After an internship at SouthShore K-8 in Rainier Beach, Chen has continued to invest in southeast Seattle, spending two years as the assistant principal at Aki Kurose Middle School and two more as the principal of Graham Hill Elementary. He and his wife and young daughter also live in the neighborhood.

“I’m just deeply invested in this community and the social, academic and emotional well-being of our kids,” Chen said, “because I know that strong schools make strong communities. Being someone who works in the community, who lives in the community, and as a person of color — specifically an Asian-American — I’m very aware that children of color don’t see many representations of themselves in their teachers and their school leaders. I believe it’s important to provide that voice.”

A rendering of the new Green Dot Middle School seen looking south on Rainier Ave. in Seattle.

For that reason, Chen hopes to build a staff at the new charter school that's as diverse as the community they will serve. He plans “as much as possible to provide opportunities for people of color to work in education, because if [students] don’t see themselves in their teachers, then we won’t have teachers who are people of color who are representative of the community. If you don’t have teachers of color, you’ll never have leaders of color either.”

It doesn't take much imagination to picture one of Walter's first students coming in this fall as a sixth-grader, leaving SPS in another seven years as a high school graduate, and then returning in another seven to teach middle school in his old neighborhood — maybe at the same school Walter's children will by then attend. And suddenly, as you consider the reality that we are always educating our babies' future teachers, building schools grounded in equity that infuse joy and acceptance into their curriculum sounds less like a pipe dream and more like the only way forward. It starts to sound like a vision for a holistic education that nurtures students as it pushes them to new heights.

“I think it’s possible to have very high expectations and high structure and a very rigorous college-prep curriculum, but when you demand that and you push kids to be the best that they can be academically and to really succeed, you also have to make it fun to come to school, and to help them feel a lot of joy in school. To take pride in their school and take pride in their community. I think that’s my ultimate vision for this Green Dot Middle School in Southeast Seattle.”

 

Green Dot Middle School is a tuition-free public charter school serving a diverse population in Southeast Seattle. Their mission is to help transform public education so ALL students graduate prepared for collegeleadership, and life.

Green Dot is currently enrolling incoming sixth-graders. Click here for more information.

Saturday is Enrollment Day at Tacoma's Destiny Middle School

Destiny Middle School will be enrolling current 5th, 6th and 7th graders from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 18 at its third annual Enrollment Day. Interested parents, students and community members are invited to visit Destiny, part of the Green Dot network of charter schools, at 1301 E. 34th St. in Tacoma, Wash.

Washington State's charter schools are showing success closing opportunity gaps created by our traditional public school system, and Destiny may be the cream of the crop. It's worth checking out.

Students can be fully registered at the event. Food and kids' activities will be provided.

Check out the event page on Facebook for more info.

Green Dot Destiny Middle School in Tacoma, Wash.

Green Dot Destiny Middle School in Tacoma, Wash.

Catching up after a busy month

I'm home.

A lot, it turns out, happened while I was gone. And having spent most of the past month with little cell service and lots of things demanding my attention, I'm still getting caught up.

For starters, Donald Trump was elected president. That seems bad.

Trump has also nominated Betsy DeVos to be our new Secretary of Education. She supports charter schools, which seems good at first, until you find out she's obsessed with them in a bizarre, fairly extreme way. She also wants to "Make Education Great Again," which requires no dissection to be rendered obviously ridiculous (though I do look forward to dissecting it soon anyway).

But the point is, Trump and DeVos will be making decisions very soon that have very real implications for our kids. What will we do?

In Washington State, meanwhile, we showed our own backwater stripes and failed to elect Erin Jones to be our new state superintendent of public instruction. Instead, we shout hooray for Chris Reykdal, a white male career politician! He's the change we've been looking for, no doubt.

The frivolous challenge to Washington State's charter school law was dismissed, and the same law has since been called the strongest in the nation, so our locale hasn't been completely bereft of positive developments. Our budget crisis remains, however, and the broken systems that created the inequity are still the ones trying to fix it. We are still scales on a snake trying to eat its own tail.

Luckily, there's reason for hope. Our kids are beautiful geniuses, and we (their parents and their community) recognize this and love them all the more for it. They will not be denied the education they deserve. We won't stand for it.

Washington Attorney General joins web of charter lawsuits, asks court to throw out political arguments

The web of lawsuits around Washington State's charter schools has gotten tighter and more tangled.

Parents and students involved in the charter school suit stand behind lead attorney Rob McKenna at Tuesday's press conference.

Led by Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, the State of Washington filed a motion today to dismiss two of the plaintiffs’ core arguments in El Centro de la Raza v. Washington, another lawsuit filed against charters under the leadership of the Washington Education.

"Those arguments are (1) an attempt to tie charter public schools to the state’s underfunding of basic public education, which is a separate matter that is under active supervision by the state Supreme Court, and (2) an attack on last academic year’s operation of charter public schools, an argument that a court cannot entertain because, in these circumstances, the plaintiffs’ argument can only be read as assuming too much or too little, too late," said the Washington State Charter Schools Association in a statement, "In either case, both arguments are also meritless."

Today’s filing follows yesterday’s announcement that 12 families representing the charter sector filed a collective motion of their own calling for the dismissal all of the organizational plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

"The motion was filed on the grounds that the advocacy organizations are merely attempting to rehash policy arguments in a courtroom by recasting them as constitutional concerns – policy arguments that were decided at both ballot box and in the 2016 Legislative session," said the WA Charters statement. "The Washington Education Association, the League of Women Voters and El Centro De La Raza are among the lobbying groups the intervenors are asking the court to dismiss."

The state’s existing charter public schools opened after voters passed a ballot initiative in 2012. When the Washington Supreme Court identified a glitch in the voter-approved charter school law that conflicted with the state constitution, a bipartisan group of lawmakers studied, vetted, and in March 2016 passed a bill specifically designed to address the Supreme Court’s concerns. Legal experts from both sides of the aisle, including non-partisan staff attorneys, combed through SB 6194 to ensure it would pass constitutional muster and restore the will of the voters by creating a path for charter public schools’ long-term success.

Washington’s operating charter public schools began their second school year this month, having quickly become a vital part of Washington’s public education system for the students and families they serve. The schools already are making a quantifiable difference in the lives of hundreds of Washington families, particularly in historically under-resourced and under-served communities.

More than 67 percent of charter public school students in Washington are students of color, as compared to 43 percent of non-charter public school students statewide. In addition, approximately two-thirds of charter public school students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. At four of Washington’s charter public schools, that number exceeds 70 percent.

Charter schools are a type of public school, approved and overseen by a state or district authorizer. Like all public schools, they do not charge tuition, they are open to all students, and they are publicly funded. However, charter public schools are held more accountable for showing improved student achievement. In exchange for greater accountability, teachers and principals are given more flexibility to customize their teaching methods and curriculum to improve student learning.

 

Tacoma’s Charter Public Schools to Host Open House Tour for New Families

SOAR AcademyGreen Dot Destiny Middle School and Summit Olympus High School will host a tour of open houses on Thursday, July 28, for Tacoma families exploring their public school options for the upcoming 2016-17 school year.

The tour of open houses will give potential students, parents and caregivers the opportunity to tour each school building, ask questions and meet school leaders and teachers, and hear the experiences of founding families and students who are returning to Tacoma’s charter public schools for the second year.

As all three of Tacoma’s small, personalized and academically rigorous charter public schools head into their second year of operation, each school is growing to serve new grade levels in Fall 2016.

SOAR Academy, which eventually will serve K-8, served K-1 in its first year and will grow to serve K-2 in Fall 2016. Green Dot Destiny Middle School, which served sixth grade in its founding year and will serve grades 6-8 at capacity, is enrolling sixth and seventh grade for Fall 2016. And Summit Olympus High School, which opened to ninth graders in its founding year, is enrolling ninth and tenth graders for this coming school year.

Enrollment is open for Fall 2016 at Tacoma’s charter public schools. All schools are tuition-free and open to all students. For more information: http://wacharters.org/enroll/tacoma/.

WHAT: Tacoma Charter Public Schools Open House Tour

WHEN: Thursday, July 28, 5 – 8:15 p.m.

LOGISTICS:
The open house tour begins at SOAR Academy and then travels to Summit Olympus and Destiny Charter Middle School. Bus transportation will be provided for those attending the full three-school tour, and will return to SOAR Academy at the end of the tour.

5:00 pm: Meet at SOAR Academy, 2136 MLK Jr. Way, Tacoma, WA 98405
5:30—6pm: Tour SOAR Academy
6:30—7pm: Tour Summit Olympus, 409 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, WA 98421
7:30—8pm: Tour Destiny Middle School, 1301 E 34th St, Tacoma, WA 98404
8:00 pm: After the Destiny Middle School tour, participants will be dropped back off at SOAR Academy.

RSVP here. View the Facebook event here.

About Washington’s Public Charter Schools
Charter schools are state-authorized public schools. Like all public schools, they do not charge tuition, they are open to all students, and they are publicly funded. However, charter schools are held more accountable for showing improved student achievement. In exchange for greater accountability, teachers and principals are given more flexibility to customize their teaching methods and curriculum to improve student learning.

Washington’s charter public schools are helping to close the education equity gap. More than 67 percent of charter public school students in Washington are students of color, as compared to 43 percent statewide. Two-thirds of charter public school students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, as compared to 45 percent statewide. At four of Washington’s charter public schools, this number exceeds 70 percent.

Charter school parents, brace yourself, the haters have returned

Charter school students and their families had an epic battle to keep their schools open this year. In 2015 they narrowly survived set backs after the Washington Supreme Court deemed charter schools unconstitutional.

They survived relentless attacks from district teachers.

And, they endured merciless scorn from Seattle's privileged parents who want all kids to stay put in the traditional school district (even when those kids are red lined into bad schools many families with resources have abandoned).

Now, the haters are back for more.

King 5 is reporting the Washington Education Association is planning another wave of attacks on charter school families. 

Charter school critics, including Gov. Inslee, say these schools take public money without enough public oversight.

To that Jessica Garcia, a charter school mom, says:

"What is more public than parents having a say in where their kids go and their tax dollars being spent? They're accountable to us and so that's the most oversight -- before, you walk into the general public school and you ask them where are you putting the money … they can't tell you. This is the most accountability that I have ever been granted, as a parent and as a taxpayer, and the oversight is amazing."

If only these battles were really about students and families. They're not. Stay tuned.