Tacoma approved to have three charter schools by fall 2015

The Associated PressJanuary 30, 2014 

Tacoma is on track to become the charter school capital of Washington, following action Thursday by the state Charter School Commission.

The commission, meeting in Seattle, approved charters for a total of seven schools that submitted plans. Three of the publicly funded but independently run schools would open in Tacoma. All three plan to start teaching students in the fall of 2015.

Two of the three would be operated by out-of-state groups – Summit: Olympus High School and Green Dot Charter Middle School. The third, SOAR Academy, is aimed at students in grades kindergarten through eight, and is founded by a former Seattle public school principal.

The rest of the schools approved Thursday would also be set up in the Puget Sound area. The commission approved two charters in Seattle, one in Kent and one in the Highline area of South King County.

The Spokane School Board — the sole local school district that applied to become a Washington charter authorizer — has already approved one school to open in that city.

The commission voted Thursday to adopt most of the recommendations of independent evaluators who studied the applications, interviewed people who wrote the school plans and judged their education planning, financial solvency and program organization.

SOAR, which wants to open an elementary school in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, was the one school that did not gain the evaluators’ recommendation but was approved anyway. It received passionate testimony from school planners and endorsements by commission members who said they thought the school had a strong academic structure and plenty of time to solidify its organizational planning by fall 2015.

Commissioner Trish Millines Dziko spoke in support of SOAR and questioned the evaluation team’s criticism of the school’s planners for not living in Tacoma.

She said three schools recommended by the evaluators, including two in Tacoma, will be set up by people who are not only out of town but out of state.

Founding school director Kristina Bellamy-McClain said through tears that the vote for her school was a victory for Tacoma children.

“This process shows that the commissioners really want to do what’s right for kids,” Bellamy-McClain said.

Another 12 schools were denied a charter at Thursday’s public meeting in southwest Seattle, but several were encouraged by commission members to refine their applications and submit them again.

Although the charter law says up to eight of the independent schools can be opened in any one year, because only one school has been approved for 2014, more schools could be approved for opening in 2015, said Joshua Halsey, executive director of the commission.

The eight schools approved so far are:

  • First Place, an elementary school for homeless kids and others in Seattle, which will be converted from a private school and the only one scheduled to open in 2014.
  • Excel Public Charter School, a science- and technology-focused middle and high school in Kent.
  • Green Dot Public Schools, a Tacoma middle school to be run by a California charter management organization.
  • Pride Prep, a college-prep middle school for kids in danger of failing. It was approved last week by the Spokane school board.
  • Rainier Prep, a college prep middle school in Highline or Tukwila
  • SOAR Academy, a Tacoma elementary school planned for an area of high poverty and low academic achievement.
  • Two schools from Summit Public Schools, a California charter management organization.

Several of the schools approved by the commission Thursday were chartered with conditions, mostly concerning finances. School planners were asked to clarify how they would pay back startup loans without state dollars.

Financial matters also kept some schools from gaining approval, including proposals for the Sunnyside Charter Academy in the Yakima area and The Village Academy offering help for children with special needs in the area near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Voters approved the state’s charter school law in 2012. The law, which is currently facing a court challenge, allows up to 40 charter schools to open over the next five years.

The coalition bringing the lawsuit includes the state teachers’ union, a group of Washington school administrators, the League of Women Voters, El Centro de la Raza and several parents, children and school advocates.

Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this article.

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