Pierce County could see a fourth charter school open here next fall, pending state approval

Pierce County could add a fourth charter school to its portfolio next fall, if state charter school commissioners give the nod to a nonprofit group that wants to serve nontraditional learners.

The state commission has already authorized the startup of three of the publicly funded, but independently run, charters in Tacoma. All three plan to open in the fall of 2015.

Wednesday night, the commission held a public forum in Tacoma to hear testimony on a possible fourth, the Village Academy. It’s spearheaded by a nonprofit organization founded by Calyn Holdaway, a Gig Harbor military mom of three special-needs kids.

“Our motto is: building successful leaders who are prepared for a global economy,” Holdaway said.

If the commission approves, the Village Academy could open a year from now.

The Village Academy’s definition of nontraditional learners is a broad one. It includes kids on the autism spectrum and kids with learning disabilities, children living in poverty and gifted kids. Holdaway also wants to reach out to military families, whose children live with repeated parental deployments and other challenges of military life.

That’s one reason she is hoping to locate to the DuPont area, near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Holdaway said the academy — aimed at students in grades six through 12 — hopes to employ several research-based models. They include:

•  hands-on, project-based learning.

•  an emphasis on math, science, technology and the arts blended learning that combines teacher instruction and computer-based learning personalized for individual students

•  out-of-the classroom learning expeditions.

The academy would also practice what’s known as inclusion — allowing kids with special needs and those without to study side-by-side. The long-term goal is to have a teacher and an aide in every classroom. But Holdaway said that, due to initial startup costs, the school might only be able to achieve that goal in half its classrooms during its first year.

Rachel King, a member of the nonprofit Ducere Group that hopes to sponsor the academy, said she has been an educator both in Washington and California. She said public school teachers are sometimes limited due to the nature of the large organizations of which they are a part.

Teachers must often operate “as if all students fit into one box — and they don’t,” she said.

Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said she believes in the academy’s goals of serving every student. But she said it is not easy to serve so many different kinds of students in a single classroom.

“We are a full inclusion model in Tacoma,” she said. But operating successfully takes “years of training, years of education.”

Holdaway said she has already been contacted by educators from area public schools who want to join her effort. She said the academy would also recruit through local colleges, through the Troops to Teachers program and through Teach for America, a national organization that recruits high-achieving recent college graduates to serve at least two years in low-income schools.

The Village Academy initially submitted an application to the state charter commission last year, in hopes of getting the commission nod during the first round of approvals in January. But after that application was denied, Holdaway vowed that her group would do its homework and return this year.

The state’s first charter school opened Sept. 3 in Seattle. First Place Scholars is a former private school that has served homeless kids for 25 years. It converted to a publicly funded charter school.

The commission has four new applications to review this year, one each in Pierce County, Vancouver, Sunnyside and Seattle. Commissioners have already held public forums on the Seattle and Pierce County groups. Hearings are scheduled Tuesday in Sunnyside and Sept. 18 in Vancouver.

The commission is scheduled to make a final decision on all four applicants at its meeting Oct. 9 in Yakima.