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.”

Take a look at the Seattle Superintendent's 'equity analysis' of school calendar changes and tell me what you think

Seattle Public Schools are making changes to the school calendar again this year. They are proposing to extend the school day by 20 minutes, change the daily start and end times, and turn Wednesday into a weekly early-dismissal day, among other things.

The Seattle School Board will vote on this issue next week based on this School Board Action Report submitted by district superintendent Larry Nyland on April 20. In addition to many other things, Nyland's report includes the following on equity:

7. EQUITY ANALYSIS
This calendar incorporates additional student early release time that allows for more teacher collaboration time to address school improvement plans and work on ending opportunity gaps.

That’s it. To me, this sounds like a pretty halfhearted “analysis.”

So, I did a little digging and found that Seattle Public Schools are supposed to conduct an equity analysis in a case like this.

Back in 2012, the district adopted “Board Policy No. 0030: Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity.” It states that SPS is “focused on closing the opportunity gap,” and it lists certain things the district has to do differently, including:

Equitable Access—The district shall provide every student with equitable access to a high quality curriculum, support, facilities and other educational resources, even when this means differentiating resource allocation;
B. Racial Equity Analysis—The district shall review existing policies, programs, professional development and procedures to ensure the promotion of racial equity, and all applicable new policies, programs and procedures will be developed using a racial equity analysis tool;

(For what it's worth, here is the district’s official “Racial Equity Analysis Tool.”)

What happened here? If Nyland didn’t do any analysis at all, that’s problematic. If he did do a thorough analysis, and he is truly satisfied with “more teacher collaboration time” as a solution to the opportunity gap, that’s problematic, too. And it kind of misses the point of the equity analysis. Will this impact certain students, families or communities more than others? Will this perpetuate inequity?

I don't know whether the new school calendar Nyland is proposing will be equitable or not. This is the kind of thing that can quietly have disproportionate impact on certain groups, however, and we can’t be sure we’re implementing equitable procedures unless we do our due diligence. 

Paying lip service to racial inequity and then failing to follow through on the hard work of dismantling structural barriers to equity is exactly what has perpetuated our opportunity gap all this time. It needs to stop. Until our school leaders start making different decisions based on new information and diverse perspectives, nothing will change in our schools.

It’s been five years now under this new policy. Has the district followed through on its promise to review all the policies, programs, professional development opportunities and district procedures that have led to this inequity? If so, who completed the analyses, and what did they find?

If it hasn’t been done at all… well, why not?

And I have the same questions for Larry Nyland about his equity analysis for the proposed calendar changes. Did you follow through on your district’s promise to develop this new policy using a racial equity analysis tool? If so, you might need a sharper tool.

Or if it wasn’t done at all… well, why not?

I'll be talking with education activist Chris Stewart at next month's WA Charters Conference

I am excited to share that I've been asked to facilitate a keynote conversation with education writer and activist Chris Stewart at the third annual Washington State Charter Schools Association Conference on May 13. (Spoiler: I said yes.)

The entire conference looks great, with an overt focus on equity and advocacy. Sessions include titles like "Using Racial Equity Tool to Eliminate Systematic Racism," "Hot Button Issues: Student Discipline & Disproportionality," and "Supporting Teachers & Leaders of Color." Nice.

I'm particularly happy that WA Charters chose Chris Stewart as their keynote speaker, not only because they asked me to participate, but because I think it reflects and reinforces the charter sector's commitment to equity and to having honest conversations about race. Chris is a renowned speaker and writer on the subject of racial equity in public education, and he's the man behind Citizen Ed, a blog, podcast and full-blown education news and opinion page. If you're not familiar with his work, I would encourage you to start reading.

citizen stewart

I knew him first as an inspiring voice writing and speaking on behalf of marginalized communities, exposing inequity in schools and demanding change. As I've gotten to know him over the past couple years, I've only come to appreciate more the depth of his wisdom and the strength of his vision when it comes to the fight for better schools. 

Take this nugget, for instance, from an insightful post Chris wrote about social justice in education reform:

We can’t become paralyzed or disillusioned. We can’t live in our feelings forever. We can’t forget that lives and minds are at risk, and we can’t live the values we profess if we wilt in the face of setbacks.
No, we can’t join the right-wingers as they attempt to nationalize Michigan’s charter school sewer and make all of America an education casino. But, we can’t join the unionists either as they attempt to remove all accountability from public education as a way to hide unacceptable levels of failure.
And we can’t sit on the sidelines as passive bystanders feeling jilted as forces from the left and right threaten to unwind most of the educational progress we’ve made over decades.
All we can do is stay clear and focused on our permanent interests: accountable systems, high standards that are transparent, better options for kids trapped in poorly performing schools, and a focus on human rights for people who have suffered historic discrimination.

 

We've got a lot to talk about, and I have a lot of questions. What would you like to ask Chris Stewart? What should we make sure to talk about? Let me know in the comments below, on Twitter (@HalvyHalvorson), in an email, or really any other way you can come up with. I'm not too picky.

As Trump tries to get DAPL finished, Standing Rock responds: "We are just now beginning this fight"

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Donald Trump has signed executive memoranda to authorize the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines.

I spent a month at Standing Rock near the end of last year. The violence visited by militarized police on peaceful everyday people was shocking to see up close.

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As intense and vivid as the encounters were with armored police, the more surreal aspects have been even more jarring to me in the long run. What does it mean that they were there, enforcing a corporation’s desire for profit against a peaceful assembly of real-life citizens? What does it mean that the government never fully intervened, even under Obama?

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and she owns the land on the reservation that borders the much-discussed land controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. The original camp of water protectors, Sacred Stone, from which the entire #NoDAPL resistance grew, continues to sit on LaDonna’s private land. She has essentially been hosting everyone who has come to Standing Rock and stayed at the camps.

She posted a video on Facebook today addressing the many conflicting reports and the unrest that has grown out of Trump’s DAPL memo. Here is the full transcript:

Good evening, everybody.
I wanted to tell you, it has been a long day. A lot of things have happened.
We started this day with the United Nations listening to testimony on the water protectors and all of the events that happened to our water protectors. Today was hard, listening to the people who were hurt, the damage they received from Morton County Sheriffs and Army National Guard as they stood up for the water. 
But while we were hearing the testimony, we heard the decision from president trump on signing the executive memoranda — they are not executive orders yet, they are executive memoranda — for Dakota Access and XL Pipeline. 
We knew this day was coming.
We are asking everybody to say prayers today to give the people who are standing strength — wherever you are, to pray.
We have started something that we must complete, and that is the healing of our nations. That is the healing of our people.
And how do we do that? We stand up for the water. We continue to stand up for the water. And so I’m asking you to continue to stand with me. Continue to stand for the beautiful rivers, for the beautiful lakes, for the beautiful creeks. Everywhere our water flows, please stand.
We are just now beginning this fight.
My heart hurts for all those that are hurt, all those that have suffered. But I see something in each one of them. I see this strength and this pride. I see a building of a new nation, and so even as we start this new journey, this new fight — because that’s what it is — we must all stand together.
And we will continue to stand, because I will continue to stand.
I will not back down.
I will not back down. We must stand for the water. We have no other choice. When we stand for the water, we stand for the people. We stand for the people, we stand for healing of our nations. It is time for all the nations to be healed.
So, I wanted to let you know that we continue to stand. I know there’s a lot of confusion out there with the proposed closing of the camps — or not closing of the camps — who has jurisdiction? — all of these things.
Sacred Stone is not closing. We’ll be standing. And we ask you to continue to stand with us. All of you are welcome in my home and on my land. You are welcome to come back and you are welcome to stand with us, because we will continue to stand.
Be safe, everyone. Pray hard, because the journey has just begun.

 

Donald Trump is doing so many dangerous, awful things so quickly that we can't afford to spend any time wondering what to do.

However bad things have been, however unfair, however inequitable, however racist, however sexist, however dangerous Amurrica already was… it’s worse. Trump has his foot on the accelerator of the DeLorean and we are screaming at 88 mph toward the alternate timeline where Biff has the almanac and everything is disgusting and awful. (In fact, Trump might be Biff with the Almanac. I’ll look into that more soon.)

This is what it's like to use a port-a-potty during a blizzard in North Dakota. Photo by Lindsay Hill. 

This is what it's like to use a port-a-potty during a blizzard in North Dakota. Photo by Lindsay Hill. 

My friend Nic Cochran has been in Standing Rock throughout this brutal winter. He would love to go home and be warm indoors back home in West Virginia. He's tired. He acknowledges this. And he called Trump's memorandum "an executive order to stay."

The time is now for all of us everywhere. It’s like every movie. Goodness is under assault, truly. Find a way to stand up against it. Be brave. Be safe if you can, but be brave no matter what. Safety isn’t an option for everyone.

Here's an easy place to start. Join Seattle's visionary leader, Kshama Sawant, who has helped organize an action on Feb. 11 to demand that the Seattle City Council boycott Wells Fargo until it withdraws its DAPL funding: Stop Trump! Boycott Wells Fargo, NoDAPL!