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.”

Seattle students rise up and walk out

Five days after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton conceded the 2016 presidential election to Republican Donald Trump — a man who, in case a reminder is necessary, announced his presidential campaign in the same speech in which he called Mexican immigrants "rapists," suggested barring all Muslims from entry into the United States and has been accused of multiple cases of sexual assault and harassment — thousands of Seattle high-school students walked out of class to protest Trump's electoral win. 

All told, more than 5,000 students from 20 high schools and middle schools participated in the #NotMyPresident walkouts and protests, according to KIRO's Graham Johnson

The courage of these students' convictions is beautiful and emboldening — and should be eye-opening for those of us who, unlike the vast majority of these student protesters, actually had a say in the how the 2016 election would shape the future in which these kids must live. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer pointed out the threat that Trump's nativist, Draconian immigration policies pose to the younger generation in particular. 

Trump’s proposals and attitude towards immigrants stirred fear and outrage during the campaign, emotions that are now, belatedly, being voiced on the nation's streets. The president-elect has promoted a ban on Muslim travel into the United States, severe restrictions on legal immigration and a “deportation force” targeting undocumented residents.

Children would likely bear the brunt of Trump’s proposals, if enacted.

About 800,000 undocumented children and youths who were brought to the United States by their parents came out of hiding during President Obama’s administration. Obama issued an executive order in 2012 halting the deportation of immigrant children who arrived before age 16; those children are now known to the government and would be at risk for deportation if Trump rescinds that order.

Trump has also pledged to cut all federal funding to “sanctuary cities” like Seattle. As a sanctuary city, Seattle does not put its resources toward enforcing federal immigration laws, nor do city workers inquire about residents’ immigration status.

Seattle’s immigrant community includes a large concentration of Muslim refugees from East Africa. Trump denigrated Somali immigrants on the campaign trail, and has spoken against accepting non-Christian refugees.

Despite their inability to affect electoral outcomes at the ballot box, these student protestors raised their voices to be heard by those who can. 

Two 12-year-old Latinas from Denny International Middle School walked together with friends, holding signs. Jennifer Garnica's sign read, "Education, not deportation," while her companion, Mariana Ortega, held a sing saying, "Latinas are united."

"We want to change Trump's thoughts about us. We gotta stick together," Ortega said, adding that young Latinas need adults to help represent their interests at the ballot box. "People can vote and they can vote for us since we can't vote."

...

“We feel we have a candidate who is jeopardizing the country. How can he speak for anybody but himself?" said Bryce Groen, 16, class of 2019.

Even though the students are too young to vote, Groen said, they need to be heard because Trump is shaping the world they are going to inherit.

Kudos to the student protestors of Seattle — and all those across the country — for recognizing injustice when they see it and using their voices to speak on it.

 

Louie Opatz is a freelance writer living in south Seattle.
See and hear more of his work at www.LouieOpatz.com.