"As we greet a new school year and say goodbye to another summer, I can’t help but notice that the rabid fervor over charter schools in Washington State has mostly flamed out.
At this time last year, everyone was still up in arms. The Washington Education Association had just led the filing of another lawsuit against the charter sector in an effort to maintain its monopoly on free public education.
Our state attorney general had just entered the fray, and the NAACP had issued its first suggestion of a nationwide moratorium on charter schools.
By February of this year, however, a judge had ruled in favor of charter schools, and the several months since have seen them slip — at last — out of the limelight for a moment. "Read More
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.”
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 college, leadership, and life.
Green Dot is currently enrolling incoming sixth-graders. Click here for more information.
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.
A coalition of unions, led by the Washington Education Association, is once again pushing to eradicate charter schools in Washington State. That’s nothing new. The WEA has been fighting hard to maintain its monopoly on public school choice across the state for years now.
In fact, it’s been such a long and dogged battle that it’s easy to get lost in the fray. Let’s catch up.
Washington State is currently home to about 1600 charter school students, and plans are in place to open Willow School in Walla Walla next fall, along with a Summit school in West Seattle and a Green Dot middle school in South Seattle.
Everything is on track to continue.
Also set to continue, often seemingly to infinity, is the coordinated opposition to our state’s charter school movement.
What’s all this about unconstitutionality?
The Washington State Supreme Court questioned the constitutionality of charter schools in 2015 based on a technicality around such schools’ oversight. The court’s initial opinion was lifted almost word for word from a document produced by the Washington Education Association (WEA — the state teacher’s union.)
The unconstitutionality loophole was closed last spring through a partnership with the Mary Walker School District near Spokane, which agreed to host the state’s existing charter schools and designate them as Alternative Learning Environments (ALEs).
This action was based on a resolution passed by the district’s board, part of which read, “the District believes that all students should have a choice in their educational program.”
Another key part of last spring’s decision is that funding for the charters in Washington comes from a specially designated lottery fund, which is separate from the pool of money used for public education.
But the saga does not end here! The Charter School Act was challenged again late last summer so the movement remains under fire.
What’s happening with the current lawsuit?
This time around, the plaintiffs have been led in name by El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle-area non-profit that receives grant funding from the WEA, but the case is almost entirely union-driven. Many unions involved have ties to education, but many don’t. Here’s the full list of plaintiffs (unions in bold):
- El Centro de la Raza
- Washington Education Association
- Washington Association of School Administrators
- International Union of Operating Engineers 609
- Aerospace Machinists Union DL 751
- Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO
- United Food and Commercial Workers Union
- Washington Federation of State Employees
- American Federation of Teachers, Washington
- Teamsters Joint Council No. 28
- League of Women Voters, Washington State
- Pat Braman, on her own behalf
- Donna Boyer, on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children
- Sarah Lucas, on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children
This list is significant because it shows that the WEA views charter schools as a threat to unions, not to education. They are not looking at this through an equity-based, student-first lens, but rather through a lens based on the best interests of teachers and their union as an institution. As a result, the WEA has pulled together a group of unions and of predictably supportive grantees to protect their own self-interest, disregarding the specific needs of the students they serve.
A hearing last November before a courtroom packed full of charter teachers, parents and students saw a slew of procedural decisions, almost all of which fell in favor of charters.
The primary question at hand was, do these unions have standing in this case? Can they even claim they are somehow impacted by the charter law?
The judge struck down most of the plaintiffs as not having taxpayer standing, but left an opening for them to come back with a named party leading the way with a rewritten complaint. They will basically return as individuals representing their unions and organizations.
One claim from suit is that the ALE designation was more workaround than satisfactory solution, and the plaintiffs wanted to make sure the ALE wasn’t an option again. Judge John H. Chun said essentially said he considered this too much supposition and too little substance — that he wouldn’t rule on something that wasn’t presently an issue.
Chun also threw out the plaintiffs’ red-herring claim that charters shouldn’t be funded before we have met the McCleary mandate to fully fund our broader public school system, calling it speculation at best. The state legislature will have to to do something about McCleary no matter what, and charters are unlikely to impact McCleary as the two are funded separately, pulling from separate pots of money.
All of this is building toward another hearing on Jan. 27, 2017, to debate whether charters are constitutional and whether the money funding them is still somehow affecting the common fund. They will argue the meat of the case and the judge will rule. And then we’ll keep on going.
So, the existing handful of charter schools continue to operate, offering much-needed school choice to hundreds of families in different communities. They will keep moving forward as well and keep running good schools. The proof, ultimately, will be in the pudding. Great schools will overcome great opposition in time.
In the meantime, even as the charter school association and its attorneys work to take the burden of this distraction off the schools and their students, the environment created by this union battle axe remains unsettling for all involved. It’s scary for families, nerve-wracking for teachers and administrators. It’s exhausting.
But we will keep on moving. Change isn’t always comfortable, but the status quo won’t do any longer. We need more and better school choices for our students, and we need better outcomes in our traditional schools. If the price for that is being exhausted, so it goes.
SOAR Academy, Green 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.
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.
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.