Pierce County charter schools applicants have unique approaches, pasts

Staff writerDecember 2, 2013 

Here is a synopsis of proposed Pierce County charter schools that the state Charter School Commission will evaluate over the next few months.

GREEN DOT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Los Angeles-based charter operator got its start in 2000. It now operates 14 high schools and five middle schools in the Los Angeles area, and enrolls more than 10,000 students.

It serves a high-poverty population, with 93 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to statistics provided by Green Dot.

Green Dot is known for launching a charter “turnaround” of an existing public school – Locke High School in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood. That effort, begun in 2008, has won praise from the federal government and from some education reformers, but also has drawn fire from critics who say that despite millions of dollars from private philanthropy, the school has not made sufficient progress.

A UCLA study released in 2012 showed that while achievement remained low at Locke, students were more likely to graduate and more likely to take classes needed for college admission than students at other nearby schools.

“We don’t plan to do a conversion (from an existing) school in Washington,” said Nithya Rajan, Green Dot’s director of strategic planning.

Green Dot wants to start a middle school in Tacoma in 2015. It would admit sixth-graders in its first year, expanding the next year to seventh grade and then to eighth grade.

The average Green Dot school enrolls nearly 600 students. Green Dot uses a college prep curriculum, but offers students who need extra help double doses of classes in core subjects such as math and language arts. Green Dot also offers after-school programs.

“Our model is high-care, high-structure and high expectations,” Rajan said.

Green Dot teachers in California belong to a union affiliated with the National Education Association. Unions are not common in charter schools.

Rajan said that if it wins approval to open in Washington, Green Dot will spend next year hiring a school leader and building community partnerships in Tacoma.

“We think it is pretty exciting to be part of a founding group of this movement,” she said. “Washington is an interesting place, where a lot of great innovation is happening, particularly in Tacoma.”

SOAR ACADEMY

SOAR stands for Success, Outcomes, Arts and Rigor.

Founder Kristina Bellamy-McClain, in an interview with The News Tribune earlier this year, said the school would integrate the arts into the curriculum, but won’t be “an arts school.” Instead, she said, she envisions a school that used the arts “to help build habits of mind.”

The stated mission of SOAR Academy is to provide students with “a rigorous, engaged and personalized educational experience.”

Bellamy-McClain proposes a single Tacoma school that would enroll students in kindergarten through grade eight. In its first year, SOAR would admit kindergarten and first-grade students, then add more grades in subsequent years.

Bellamy-McClain has worked in public education for 13 years, in Alaska, California and, most recently, as principal of Emerson Elementary School in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood.

SUMMIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

This organization operates six charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area of California and has a seventh opening in the fall. It has proposed two charter high schools in Washington State, one in Seattle and another in Tacoma. Both would open in 2015.

The Tacoma campus would be called Summit Public School: Olympus, while the Seattle campus would be known as Summit Public School: Sierra.

Diego Arambula, Summit’s chief growth officer, said his organization is excited about helping “shape the landscape” for charter schools in Washington.

Summit is best known for its first charter high school, Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, Calif.

Summit Prep, opened in 2003, was one of the schools featured in the movie “Waiting for Superman” and was named by Newsweek as one of America’s best and most transformative high schools. U.S. News and World Report ranked it one of the top high schools in California.

About 40 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and 60 percent of its students are ethnic minority students.

Arambula said Summit has achieved results using only public funding for ongoing operational costs. He said it uses outside fund raising to finance startup costs.

“We are public schools and we have to do it on the state allocation, once we’re up and running,” he said.

Although Summit’s flagship school has received positive press, Arambula acknowledges some of its newer schools have not met all of their growth targets, particularly with some sub-groups of students.

But he said Summit schools do better than other schools with comparable demographics.

“We want to run schools that look like our communities,” Arambula said. In Tacoma, he said, that would include a school population where more than 60 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and where more than half of students would be considered ethnic minorities.

A Tacoma Summit high school would start with ninth graders and grow one grade level per year to an enrollment of a little more than 400. Small size helps create lasting and meaningful relationships between students and teachers, Arambula said. Every student is assigned a mentor who sticks with the student for all four years of high school.

Summit favors teacher-developed curriculum, Arambula added.

Teachers receive 40 days of professional development time throughout the academic year. Much of it takes place while students take specialized, intensive electives – such as art, dance and community internships – focusing on one subject or project for weeks at a time.

Those classes are taught by specialists who rotate among various Summit schools, freeing core academic subject teachers for professional learning.

THE VILLAGE ACADEMY

Calyn Holdaway started a nonprofit organization, The Ducere Group, to help build her dream school. While she originally focused her efforts in Tacoma, she said she soon learned there were other charter proposals offering to serve Pierce County’s largest city.

As a military wife, she knew about the needs of military kids from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, sothe group decided to apply to open a charter school near the base.

Village Academy would offer a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school, starting with students through grade five in the first year.

The school’s notice of intent filed with the state says it would offer instruction for “a variety of learning styles that will benefit both traditional and non-traditional learners, including those with autism, those who speak English as a second language and those with unique learning challenges.”

The school would offer blended learning, which combines online and teacher-delivered classroom instruction.

The school also would offer an option of a dual-language immersion program – where students learn core subjects such as math and reading in two languages.

“Having lived overseas, I have seen how other countries do education,” Holdaway said. She said most countries offer instruction in foreign languages at a much younger age than public schools in the United States, where foreign language instruction rarely begins before middle school or high school.

“We need to be preparing our kids to be thinking in the global economy,” she said.

debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com

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