SOAR Academy in Tacoma ‘blows the roof off the myths’ about charter schools

SOAR Dancers Get Up
SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

Walk through the front doors of SOAR Academy these days and you’ll find the building teeming with life and energy, like a dream realized.

In many ways, that’s what the public elementary school in Tacoma represents: the manifestation of a set of beliefs and ideas about what’s possible in public education.

SOAR Academy’s founders sought from the outset to design a public school that would reach students being neglected by the larger system, those who are typically on the wrong end of the opportunity and achievement gaps. 

Just two years after first opening its doors to students, those ideas have become a way of life at SOAR Academy, and the dreams of a nurturing, equitable school open to all have become reality for an engaged, grateful community of students and families.

“Here at SOAR we’ve seen tremendous growth and a fulfillment of the whole concept and vision of the alternatives and options that charter schools can provide in a publicly funded setting,” said Dr. Thelma Jackson, chair of the SOAR Academy Board of Directors. “Those of us that have been with SOAR from the very beginning, we’re just pleased as punch to see the school, to see the full classrooms, the waiting list. As I was driving up, just the smiles on the children’s and parents’ faces — they’re glad to be here! They’re here by choice.”

In many ways and from many angles, that’s the key word here: choice.

More than 70 percent of SOAR students identify as students of color, and Black students make up 56 percent of the student body. Fourteen percent receive special education services, and at least 12 percent are homeless or housing insecure. They all chose SOAR Academy, and they did so despite the hyper-political climate that surrounds the charter school sector.

School choice can be an especially foggy issue in Washington, where propaganda and repeated legal attacks led by the Washington Education Association — the state’s teachers union — have attempted to undermine the ability of schools like SOAR to work hard and innovate in an earnest effort to close the gaps created by our traditional public school system. In spite of that, many parents are seeing SOAR for what it is: an ambitious, free, public alternative that just might work for their student where other schools have fallen short.

“We’ve been up against so much ‘fake news’ about what charters are and aren’t, and we’re defying all of that,” Jackson said. “Anytime they say, ‘Oh, they won’t take kids of color; oh, they won’t take special needs kids; oh, they’ll cream the crop,’ [SOAR Academy] just blows the roof off of all those myths. And against all those odds, SOAR is thriving. The kids are thriving.”

Far from creaming, SOAR’S school leader Jessica Stryczek readily acknowledges that many of the school’s students arrived having already experienced such significant trauma as abuse, neglect and domestic violence. Yet thanks to a trauma-informed approach to restorative justice, not a single SOAR student was suspended or expelled last year.

In Seattle Public Schools, on the other hand, disproportionate discipline rates show up from the very beginning, as even kindergarteners of color are suspended and expelled (yes, expelled from kindergarten!) at a rate far beyond their white peers.

Seventy-seven percent of the student body at SOAR is eligible for free or reduced lunch as well, so community meals are available to all students through the community eligibility pool.

SOAR’s staff, meanwhile, reflects the diversity of its student body. More than half the staff at SOAR are people of color, Jackson says, upending yet another myth.

“The traditional line is, ‘Oh, we’d like to hire them, but we can’t find them.’ So, where are the charter schools finding [teachers of color]?” Jackson asks. “And again, they are here by choice. They’re not here through involuntary transfers and the dance of the lemons and all that stuff.”

Enough people have chosen SOAR now that the school’s journey from vision to reality is all but complete, and the early results are showing that the young charter school is delivering on its promise.

In addition to a joyful atmosphere in a building full of well-cared-for elementary students, the school is home to impressive academic rigor as well. Just last year, more than 70 percent of students showed accelerated growth, testing beyond national grade-level expectations on the STAR Early Literacy assessment.

“The concept has taken on a life of its own,” Jackson said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

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.

Appalling displays of privilege and ignorance from our elected officials

On a recent school visit, Washington State Superintendent Randy Dorn asked a Latino high school student if he was “legal or illegal.”

Sen. Mark Miloscia, a Republican from Federal Way running for state auditor, does not believe that racism is real anymore.

Sen. Mark Miloscia, a racism-denyer holding public office

Sen. Mark Miloscia, a racism-denyer holding public office

These are men elected to positions that have a huge impact on kids in our state, and these displays of privilege and ignorance are happening in public.

According to Alan Preston, managing director of Real Change, Miloscia attended a workshop on race and class at the 2016 Conference on Ending Homelessness and openly disagreed with the presentation, with the idea that race and racism are still playing a role in modern American society:

"Some of the stuff you guys are saying about class is true," he said, "but I disagree with 90 percent of what you are saying about race. It might have been true in the 1870s, but it isn't true today."
This guy was conveying an opinion that an alarming number of Americans share. It's an assertion steeped in the invisibility of White privilege.
It dismisses the suffering of newly freed Blacks after abolition, the cruel segregation of the Jim Crow Era, and the current racist system of mass incarceration. His comment was completely ignorant of how racism is baked into our educational, judicial, financial, employment and other institutions, and how that renders people of color vulnerable to poverty and homelessness.

Further showing his privilege, of the two presenters, Miloscia specifically sought out the woman of color as opposed to Preston to whitesplain all the reasons she was wrong about race and racism.

Meanwhile, there’s so little else to tell about the Dorn story that there’s basically no way to sugarcoat it. From the Seattle Times:

During a visit to Raisbeck Aviation High School on Thursday, Randy Dorn, the state’s top schools official, asked a few students their names, grade levels and where they were from. Students come from all over the region to go to Aviation, so Dorn was curious about the students’ home districts.
One student said he first went to school in Mexico. The two talked about the student’s transition to the Tukwila school, then Dorn said:
“Now I’ll ask you under my breath, are you legal or illegal?”
As a KOMO News photographer recorded the conversation, the student replied “I’m legal, I’m half American.”


These are two elected officials putting these levels of ignorance on proud display. These are two privileged white men charged with protecting and advocating on behalf of our kids and families, and they’re operating with blinders on.

Miloscia is vice chair of the Senate Human Services, Mental Health & Housing Committee, which “considers issues relating to services to children and families, including child welfare, child protection, dependency, and foster care. The Committee deals with mental health treatment, chemical dependency, at risk youth, and juvenile justice. The Committee also considers bills relating to housing, including state assistance to low-income housing, housing authorities, and the Housing Finance Commission.”

He is also a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, dealing with “issues relating to the state's public and independent baccalaureate colleges and universities, public community and technical colleges, and private career schools. Issues include governance and coordination of higher education, financial aid, tuition, and workforce training.”

That means Miloscia, in committee meetings discussing things like homelessness, foster care, at-risk and homeless youth, housing, and higher education, just to name a few, is advocating that race plays no factor. He is arguing in these meetings and in our state legislature that systemic racism is a myth.

Then, when presented with information that runs counter to his privileged belief system, rather than considering the possibility that he has something to learn, he seeks out the least privileged presenter -- an expert in her field -- to paternalistically explain she is wrong.

What voice do his constituents have with that approach? What hope do we have?

And then we have Dorn, the superintendent of a public school system that has a growing opportunity gap and that claims it's working on its disproportionate discipline problem.

As long as these are our decision-makers, how can possibly expect to do right by our students and families of color?

We elected this ignorance. If Miloscia and Dorn don't hear from us now, we are complicit. If we re-elect them, we are complicit. Let's not make the same mistake again.

If Dorn and Miloscia want to continue serving people of color, which is inevitable as an elected official, they should be forced to take an implicit bias test and publicly discuss the results. We must force them to confront their privilege or show them the door.