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Three years of charter schools in Tacoma, and the fight against them rages on

Graduation day at Destiny Middle School began like any other in Tacoma.

Excited parents, many carrying celebratory balloons, crowded into the school’s auditorium on June 14. In a nearby hallway, the school’s 103 eighth graders, dressed in navy blue and khakis, waited with nervous energy.

There were the expected adult speeches about the Big Meaning of it all.

Then Justin Drayton spoke.

The 15-year-old told the crowd his grandmother sent him to the charter school as a seventh grader.

“My heart sunk,” is how he described his reaction to the news. On his first day at Destiny, “My mindset was, ‘Don’t talk to no one’.”

But other students ruined his plan. They spoke to the new kid, asking him his name and other questions.

“This made me mad, because as I’m trying to dislike this school," Drayton said. "I had people showing family and being nice to me.”

“Showing family” is a phrase you’ll hear a lot at Destiny. Students use it, staff use it and families use it.

It's one reason families send their children to small, tailored fit charter schools.

Charter schools, including three in Tacoma, have just finished their third year in Washington.

Proponents say they offer a more personalized learning experience for students and meet the needs of marginalized children better than the regular school system. Detractors contend they siphon much needed money from public schools.

Charters came to the state after a 2012 voter-approved initiative gave them the green light. They are part of the public school system. However, the regular public school system, which is divided into districts, is governed by a publicly elected board.

Charter schools are accountable to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education.

Charter schools are, open to all students, run by non-profit organizations and publicly funded. That last item is a sticking point for opponents.

Tacoma has three charter schools:

SOAR Academy, 2136 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Destiny Middle School, 1301 E. 34th St.

Summit Olympus High School, 409 Puyallup Ave.

SOAR is independent. Destiny is run by Green Dot Public Schools. Olympus is run by Summit Public Schools.

Five others operate in the Seattle area and two in Spokane. Two more will open in the fall in Tukwila and Walla Walla. All together, they enroll 2,400 students.

Proponents have faced a protracted struggle to keep them operating, and the public way they're funded is before the Washington State Supreme Court.

Justin's story

Drayton transferred to Destiny from a school in DuPont where he was one of the few non-military kids. He liked the school and had friends there.

In his graduation speech at Destiny, the teen said he was determined not to like his new charter school, but it didn't take long to change his mind.

“Everybody’s caring,” Drayton said after the ceremony. “You can be a new student, on your second day of school you’ll have five friends.”

Student speakers Justin Drayton, left, and Lavina Polk, right, laugh as they share their experiences at Destiny Charter Middle School during a graduation ceremony in Tacoma on June 14, 2018. Joshua Bessex

More important to him is the education he received.

“The teachers push you to work your hardest,” Drayton said. “They don’t let you just quit. I feel like the teachers take it personally when you give up or when you’re feeling down.”

Drayton will start at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma in the fall.

“If it gets hard over there at Bellarmine, I’ll know all things are possible,” Drayton said. “Try and never give up. There’s no reward in giving up.”

He wants to go to Stanford University when he finishes at Bellarmine.

Drayton’s grandmother, Emma Shipp, was familiar with charter schools in her former home of Florida, and she was dead set against sending Drayton to one.

“My son went to one,” she said. “Charter schools typically didn’t have (teachers) of this quality. So, when they were talking about doing charter here, I was not for it.”

Shipp refused to sign a petition to get the initiative on the ballot.

"I said, 'I think it’s a horrible idea,'" she recalled.

Destiny caught her attention in 2016 when she saw the school offered leadership classes.

“My grandson is very much a leader,” Shipp said.


The strikes opponents list against charter schools are long. Their detractors say charter schools:

Divert much-needed dollars from traditional public schools.

Hire inexperienced, non-union teachers.

Are secretly structured money-making enterprises.

Either are elitist bastions of white privilege or under-serve children of color.

In 2012, as rhetoric around the schools heated up, a Seattle education blogger called them, “The darlings of the right wing.”

That label has created a crisis of support among progressives. It’s only grown since the election of President Donald Trump and his appointment of charter school fan Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

“Betsy DeVos Loves Charter Schools. That’s Bad for Charter Schools,” was a headline for a recent opinion piece in The New York Times by Conor P. Williams.

Charter schools help children of color from low-income families succeed, said Williams, an education policy researcher with the non-partisan think tank New America. “And yet," he continued, "they’re charter schools. And the more President Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, embrace charters, the more suspect they seem to people on the left.”

DeVos spoke at the conservative-leaning Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner in Bellevue in October. She aimed criticisms at both teachers' unions and “sycophants of ‘The system.’ ”

“They say (charter schools) means private schools, or maybe even religious schools,” DeVos said. “It means for-profit schools. They say it means taking money away from public schools — no accountability, no standards, the Wild West, the market run amok.”

But charter schools, DeVos said, are really about choice.

“The real meaning of choice is that it is every parent's right to determine how to engage their children in their own life-long learning journey,” she said.

Local resistance

“Peaceful coexistence” is how Carla Santorno, Tacoma Schools superintendent, described the relationship between her system and the three local charters.

“We know that charter schools are a choice that our kids have,” Santorno said. “We know charter schools are here and here to stay.”

Carla Santorno, superintendent Tacoma Public Schools

She views charter schools as analogous to private schools — with one crucial difference.

Private schools, such as Bellarmine and Annie Wright Schools, are privately funded. Charter schools are publicly funded.

“Every student at Summit, Destiny or SOAR is a student that is not in Tacoma public schools,” she said.

And where a student goes, the money follows.

The state's basic education allocation for each full-time student in 2017-18 was $7,084, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Funding from levies and other sources can drive up that to more than $10,000 per student.

Large schools have an economy of scale and are more economical to operate. It costs the same to run a high school if a student leaves — but it’ll have to be done with less funding.

Santorno rejects the claim that charter schools do a better job than her schools at serving poor, marginalized and minority students.

“I’ve got schools over 90 percent (of students living in poverty),” she said.

She also points to Tacoma’s School of the Arts and the Science and Math Institute as opportunities for alternative and specific curriculum educations.

Santorno might have called a truce with charter schools, but she’s clear she doesn’t want more of them.

“Do I want more students leaving a democratic, public school system to go to a charter school?" she asked. "No, I don’t.”

Summit Olympus

The school year had just ended and summer school started when Summit Olympus' co-principal, Greg Ponikvar, showed a reporter around the school in mid-June.

Out back of the three-story building, a student band was rehearsing songs for a barbecue later in the day. Inside, colorful murals adorned walls. Classrooms have garage-style doors that can be opened to enlarge the space.

A Foosball game in the lunchroom is played non-stop during breaks, Ponikvar said.

Students who just finished their junior year will be the school's first senior class in the fall. The school began operating in 2015 with only ninth graders, and it has added a grade level every year since.

The school has capacity of 120 per grade or 480 total. Currently, the school has 170 students.

Ponikvar was hard pressed to describe a typical student, but there are some patterns.

“We do have a number of students who come here because they were not succeeding in their middle schools," he said.

Other students come to Olympus because it allows them to move at their own pace academically, through content assessments.

“They appreciate the flexibility of schedule,” Ponikvar said.

Others just like a small school, he said.

Every student has a 15-member mentor group and an adult mentor. The goal is to build a family and community at the school that stays together from ninth to 12th grade, Ponikvar said.

The student group meets daily and the mentor/teacher meets with each student once a week. Ninth and 10th graders focus on study skills, high school issues and building community. With 11th and 12 graders, mentoring turns to college.

The school’s goal is to have 100 percent of its students gain acceptance to a college or university.

“We’re on track to do that," Ponikvar said. "All of our students have taken their SATs. They’re all focused on their GPAs.”

Hispanic students make up 35 percent of the population at Olympus while 26 percent of students are white. African-American students are 20 percent.

Those statistics compare with Tacoma School's overall numbers. White students in the district are 40 percent of the student body while Hispanic/Latino are 19 percent and African-American students make up 16 percent.

The school focuses on getting its students from the Hilltop, South End and East Side of Tacoma.

“When we’re doing recruiting and getting fliers out and putting things on doors and just trying to let people know we’re in the community, those are the communities we really try to target,” Ponikvar said.

Average class size is 18 to 25 pupils at Olympus.

Olympus has a small sports program, but you won’t see them field a football team anytime soon. The school offers basketball and volleyball. In the fall, the school will have its first full-time athletic director, along with a full-time arts teacher.

Seriously athletic students can play on their home school's team. One Olympus student plays on the Foss High School football team.

Olympus is held to the same academic standards as other public schools.

“We take all the same tests,” Greg said.

Olympus' first 11th grade test scores will not be posted by the state until the fall.

Legal challenge

Whether charter schools stay or go might come down to the state Supreme Court.

The court overturned the initiative that allowed them in 2015, finding it unconstitutional because it diverted public funding into privately run schools. The next year, the Legislature, with bipartisan support, passed the Charter School Act, a modified version of the initiative.

Now, another lawsuit has made its way to the high court.

It was brought by advocacy groups, including El Centro de la Raza, the League of Women Voters, the Washington Association of School Administrators and the state's largest teachers union — the Washington Education Association — as well as other labor groups representing Boeing machinists, Teamsters and the state labor council.

The suit aims once again to stop charter schools. Its backers contend that, among other points, charter schools violate the state’s constitutional guarantee of a uniform public school system.

In February 2017, the Charter School Act was upheld in King County Superior Court. The Supreme Court heard arguments in May, and both sides await a ruling.

The WEA hopes the court will once again rule against charter schools.

“The crux of the argument is still the same as it was in the previous lawsuit that was successful,” said the union’s spokesman, Rich Wood. “We are diverting public funding into privately run organizations that are not accountable to the public the way that public schools are.”

Public schools are overseen by an elected school board, Wood noted. Charter schools are not.

Low teacher pay, a common criticism against charter schools, is not a factor in the WEA’s opposition to charter schools, Wood said.

“I don’t even know if we’ve taken a look at that,” he said. “We’re focused right now on negotiating something like 300 contracts for teachers who are employed in the public schools in Washington.”

Parent turned teacher

Kara Hayes is the mother of a just-graduated Destiny student and a teacher at the middle school.

She volunteered at Destiny for a year before she began teaching special education.

Now, she's pursuing a master’s degree in special education. She currently holds a state teaching certificate.

Students and faculty mingle and chat in a hallway before the start of a graduation ceremony at Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma on June 14, 2018. Joshua Bessex

While she declined to disclose her salary, she said she's satisfied with Destiny’s pay scale.

Her daughter, Adrianna, spent her kindergarten through fifth grade years in the public school system.

Hayes was impressed with Green Dot’s community outreach when Destiny was in the planning stages, she said.

She also liked Destiny’s individualized education plans, tutor programs, teachers and students and size.

“I did not want her go to a junior high that had 800 students,” Hayes said.

In the fall, Adrianna will starts at Tacoma School's SAMI.

SOAR Academy

When SOAR Academy board chairwoman Thelma Jackson opened the doors of her Hilltop charter school in 2015, “We had no idea who would show up.”

What they got, she said, were "under-served, marginalized students who are not succeeding in the public school system.”

SOAR just finished its school year with 140 students, 106 of whom were minorities, 102 qualified for free and reduced lunch and 25 percent were in what Jackson called "an unstable home situation."

The school will serve K-fifth grade students in the fall and move to a shared space at Destiny Middle School.

“Tacoma will be the only community in the state with a K-12 continuum of charter school choice,” Jackson said.

She spent years in the public school system and has an extensive history in education. That, she said, makes her qualified to note the differences between charter and public schools.

"We offer a program designed to meet the needs of the kids," Jackson said. Those needs aren't being met in the regular system, she said. "Everything we do has a multicultural relevancy to it."

SOAR's class size limit is 25 pupils with at least eight teachers working at the school. They have the same certifications as other teachers in Washington, Jackson said. And, “Our teachers are on the same pay scale as other teachers,” she said.

Jackson thinks that administrators of Washington's public school systems fear charter schools will succeed.

“The energy put into making sure that charter schools don’t go forward is mind boggling," she said.

Washington charter schools

Students of color

Charter: 66 percent; public non-charter: 45 percent.

Low-income students

Charter: 60 percent; public non-charter: 43 percent.

Special education students

Charter: 16 percent; public non-charter: 12 percent.

Source: April 2018 Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction data