Education

Tacoma students will ‘go down in history’ as state’s first charter graduating class

Sitting in a circle in a meeting room at Summit Olympus High School in Tacoma, members of the first-ever graduating charter school class in Washington state shared how they felt about graduation.

“I’m so psyched,” said Juana Zuniga.

“Terrified,” admitted Emma Coleman.

“Promptly spooked,” added Skyler Ramirez.

They all agreed it also is an honor.

For them, walking across the stage on June 13 means more than just completing all their tests and projects — it’s the culmination of four years of fighting for their school to exist.

Ramirez, a senior who applied to 28 colleges and decided on Pacific Lutheran University with $135,000 in scholarships, is reminded about how much his graduating class fought for his Summit Olympus, the only high school charter in Tacoma.

“Knowing that finally, after four years, it pays off in just two weeks, and we all get to walk down and grab our diplomas, take our photos with our families and really be able to smile and look back at all we accomplished … That feeling is going to be indescribable,” Ramirez said.

A rocky start

There are currently three charter schools in Tacoma: Summit Olympus High School, Destiny Middle School and SOAR Academy, which announced it is closing at the end of the school year due to financial struggles.

Summit Olympus High School opened for the first time in 2015, after Washington was the 43rd state to pass a charter school law in 2012.

Charter schools are free for students and funded by taxpayers but run by nonprofits rather than an elected school board. They were soon met with backlash from groups like the Washington Education Association, which argued it was wrong to divert funds to privately-run organizations that were not accountable to taxpayers.

Summit Olympus suddenly faced potential closure as the state debated in court.

“The Washington charter law, early on, was declared unconstitutional, and a number of the students and seniors that were here at that time and have been to Olympia advocated and fought for their school multiple times,” Summit Olympus principal Greg Ponikvar said.

One of those “founding” students was senior and Puyallup resident Julian Sams.

“Our first couple months here, we were all kind of settling in, and all of a sudden we were hit with, ‘The school’s unconstitutional,’” Sams said.

His parents were concerned and unsure about the future of the school. Some of his peers were pulled out to attend class elsewhere.

Students who felt that their charter experience — smaller class sizes, daily mentor groups, a focus on self-directed learning — was working for them went to Olympia to fight for the school to stay open.

“We knew that as freshmen, other than just worrying about if this school was still going to stay open or not, we still had to finish our classes,” Zuniga said.

The experience bonded their class.

“The people who have been here since freshman year, who have battled it out, I think that specific group has such a strong bond together,” said Coleman, who plans to study psychology at the University of Portland next year with $90,000 in scholarships. “We went to the rallies together, we sat in the sun and the rain, and we held the signs.

“As a whole graduating class, we’ve all grown really close ,and it’s going to hurt to say goodbye, but at the same time, we’ve seen each other grow.”

The state Supreme Court upheld the state’s charter school law in 2018, allowing charter schools to continue operating. There are 3,400 students enrolled in 12 charters across the state. This week, a new round of charters was authorized in Bellingham, Bremerton and Seattle.

Graduation

If you asked him four years ago, senior Chris Padilla would say he didn’t think he’d graduate.

“Graduation was never a thing that I was thinking about doing. I was thinking about, ‘I’m going to go to high school and if I fail, I’m done,’” said Padilla, a Tacoma resident.

Now, he’s one of the 66 seniors set to graduate from Summit Olympus this year. He’s planning to attend Central Washington University to play basketball and study education.

Padilla said having the same mentor by his side for years at a time helped keep him on track. During his time at Summit Olympus, he helped form the Summit Olympus basketball team.

“We left our footprint on the school,” Padilla said.

Sams said he found his voice attending Summit Olympus and helped establish a student government, serving as vice president.

For now, Summit Olympus seniors eager await their walk across the stage.

“I think we’re all just so ready,” said Zuniga, who plans to attend Clover Park Technical College next year. “I think we’re so ready to just say, ‘You know what, we made it.’ It was a struggle. There was a lot of fights. There was a lot of battles. We suffered that first blow so everyone else could have that chance.”

By the numbers

Summit Olympus High School, 409 Puyallup Ave.

  • 183 students grades nine through 12 attend Summit Olympus

  • 66 graduating Class of 2019

  • 98 percent of seniors accepted to four-year universities

  • 71 percent of seniors first in their families to attend a four-year college

  • 34 percent of seniors are Hispanic

  • 28 percent of seniors are black

  • 28 percent of seniors are white

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