Tacoma mom discusses charter school choice
Like many parents, Tacoma mom Roquesia Williams wanted something extra for her children’s education.
She believes she’s found it in three charter schools opening next month in Tacoma — the first of the publicly funded, privately operated schools to open in the city.
Williams will have a child at each of the three campuses — a first-grader at SOAR Academy, a sixth-grader at Destiny Charter Middle School and a ninth-grader at Summit Olympus High School.
“I was looking for an alternative to the public school system,” she said. “I was less than satisfied with my kids’ experience in Tacoma Public Schools. I felt like they weren’t being pushed to use their full potential. They were just kind of sliding through.”
Following voter approval of a 2012 ballot initiative, Washington became the 42nd state to authorize charters. Washington charter schools are tuition-free and funded by taxpayers, but independently run by nonprofit organizations and their boards instead of by publicly elected school boards. The law allows up to 40 charter schools to open over five years.
First Place Scholars, a Seattle elementary school for homeless kids, became the first charter in the state in 2014. The Spokane School District has authorized two charter schools set to open in August.
Six more authorized by the state charter commission — including the three in Tacoma, the most in any city so far — are scheduled to open this year.
Tacoma School Board members have voiced concerns about the state approving too many charter schools in Tacoma, draining students and funds from the district.
Tacoma is designated an innovative school district by the state and has several state-designated innovative schools, including the School of the Arts downtown and the Science and Math Institute inside Point Defiance Park.
SOAR stands for Success, Outcomes, Arts and Rigor. School founder Kristina Bellamy, a former Seattle Public Schools principal, wants to bring all those positive traits together in a school for students in kindergarten through grade eight.
Located on Tacoma’s Hilltop, the school will launch this year with just two grades: kindergarten and first grade, with the goal of adding grades year by year.
SOAR is located in the former Christian Brotherhood Academy, built in the late 1990s. The school building is owned by the Brotherhood Church of God, but Bellamy said the church and school have only a landlord-tenant relationship. By law, charter schools must be non-sectarian.
In keeping with the defined mission for Washington charter schools to enroll underserved students, SOAR’s incoming students include just over 75 percent from low-income families, Bellamy said.
She estimated about 12 percent are from military families and 14 percent are special education students. They come from Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Federal Way, Lakewood, Spanaway and University Place. SOAR will provide transportation from several points within Tacoma.
The school will use direct instruction, a method that uses lessons that are highly structured and sequential. It will also practice what’s called “full inclusion” for special education students; the goal is to teach those students in a general classroom rather than placing them in separate classrooms or pulling them out during the school day for separate instruction.
“We don’t pull students out unless absolutely necessary,” Bellamy said. “We push in.”
She acknowledges that inclusion can be difficult for parents who aren’t used to the model. That’s why the school will offer parent education on the subject.
In addition to math, reading, social studies and other traditional subjects, students will have dance class four days a week. There are plans to add theater arts in a few years.
“Arts are fundamental, not elective,” Bellamy said.
The school day will begin at 8:15 a.m. with breakfast for kids and teachers. School ends at 4:30 p.m., but the last 50 minutes are called the Promise Block. That’s when kids will receive another “dose” of instruction pitched at their ability level, whether they’re behind, working at grade level or soaring ahead.
Williams believes her first-grade son, Gesiah, will benefit. At his previous school, she said, his teacher asked him not to call out the answer too often. She’s hoping SOAR will help him play to his strengths.
Getting to know the Hilltop and greater Tacoma community has been one of the best parts of opening SOAR, Bellamy said. She said the building will be available to community groups when not in use by SOAR students.
“It’s a community school, one that the community can access,” she said. “We are really proud of that.”
DESTINY CHARTER MIDDLE SCHOOL
Destiny is operated by Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools. Green Dot, a 15-year-old nonprofit, enrolls more than 10,000 students across 21 schools in Los Angeles.
It is located in the former Rogers Elementary School in Tacoma’s Dome neighborhood. In 2002, the Tacoma School District closed the school, built in 1907. It has passed through several ownerships since it closed, and has endured vandalism and neglect.
The building is currently owned by a private investor. The Washington state subsidiary of L.A.-based Pacific Charter School Development is sub-leasing it to Green Dot and investing an estimated $6.9 million in building renovation.
Destiny’s academic model is fairly traditional, focusing on reading, math, science and social studies, said Bree Dusseault, executive director of Green Dot Washington.
Students are paired with a teacher adviser who stays with them the full three years of middle school.
Curriculum is aligned with Common Core standards. Like students at other Washington charters, Destiny students will take the same state tests as students in other Washington public schools.
Kellie Richardson’s son Zion will be a sixth-grader this year at Destiny. Richardson, who also has a daughter who graduated from a Tacoma high school, said she detected a difference in each child’s public school experience.
“There’s a difference in how boys are treated, particularly African American boys,” said Richardson, who is African American. “I don’t want his focus to be on surviving. I want it to be on developing his gift.”
After a Green Dot-sponsored visit to see their L.A. schools, Richardson was convinced her son would fare well at Destiny.
“They get it,” she said of the staff. She was also impressed by Green Dot students she met in California: “They were confident. They owned their school. They talked about it with pride.”
Richardson was so enamored by the Green Dot system that she became part of it. As a Destiny staff member, she will help with staff training and other duties.
Creating a school where roughly half the faculty and staff are non-white was intentional on the part of Green Dot, Dusseault said.
“The school reflects the diversity of the population we serve,” she said.
Jessica Garcia’s daughter, Isadora, will start sixth grade at Destiny. Garcia said she likes the fact that students will come from several Tacoma neighborhoods.
She is also excited to see “children assessed at their own academic level, and the communication between the school and parents.”
SUMMIT OLYMPUS HIGH SCHOOL
In the same way that Green Dot is expanding its reach from Los Angeles to Tacoma, Summit Olympus is the work of a nonprofit that operates seven schools in California’s Bay Area.
It is one of two Summit high schools opening this year in Washington. The other, Summit Sierra, is in Seattle’s International District.
The Tacoma high school is taking shape in what was once a Nalley’s pickle-packing plant just blocks from the Tacoma Dome. The 1929 brown brick building is being renovated, at a cost of $6.2 million, by the same charter development company working on Destiny Charter Middle School. Summit is leasing the building from a subsidiary of Pacific Charter School Development.
The building’s main floor features expansive windows that reveal a cityscape that includes the modern cable-stay bridge connecting downtown with the Tacoma Tideflats, as well as the historic Murray Morgan Bridge. Walls between classrooms feature garage-type doors that can open and close to create flexible learning spaces.
Summit has ninth-graders only this year, with other grades to follow later. It will follow a college preparatory curriculum aligned to Common Core standards. Charter school students take the same state tests as other public school students.
A big moment for students at Summit high schools is finishing a rite of passage: completion of what’s known as the Common Application, or Common App, used for admission to colleges across the country.
“We walk families through every step of the college application process,” said Jen Wickens, who oversees Washington schools for Summit.
At the end of what can be a challenging process for even the most savvy students and parents, Summit kids go online with their Common Apps and together, they click the “send” button.
Wickens can’t wait for this year’s Summit Olympus freshmen to reach that decisive moment.
Another hallmark of Summit schools is the PLP, or Personalized Learning Plan. It’s an online tool developed by Summit teachers in partnership with Facebook.
The PLP helps students and their teachers set learning goals, access resources, move through academic content at their own pace, and measure their growth. Each student is assigned a one-on-one mentor teacher, and much of their learning takes place through the completion of projects.
Summit students will spend about a quarter of the school year off-campus in what Summit calls expeditions. They can include internships, service projects, art, drama and sports. (Like students at private schools, charter school students can also join sports teams at traditional public high schools.)
The school is developing a partnership with Metro Parks to accommodate expedition activities. Incoming students helped suggest expedition topics, said Principal Gina Wickstead. They will also be able to vote on things like where in the building they will eat their meals.
“We want to build the school with them,” Wickstead said. “We want them to have ownership.”
Nadia Rendon, one of the school’s ninth-graders, likes the idea of being a pioneer in Tacoma’s first charter high school.
“I like being first,” she said. “I like that it’s a new school, with more opportunities than at other high schools.”
More about charters
To learn more about public charter schools in Washington, visit:
Location: 2136 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Current number of students: 104
Grade level: Kindergarten and first grade this year; eventually K-8
First day of school: Aug. 17
Last day: June 15
Operating budget: $1 million
Student demographics: About 80 percent children of color (including mixed race students), 76 percent low-income, 12 percent military, 14 percent special education
Waiting list? Yes
More information: soaracademies.org
Destiny Charter Middle School
Location: 1301 East 34th St.
Current number of students: 200
Grade level: Sixth grade this year, eventually 6-8
First day of school: Aug. 17 for orientation; school starts Aug. 24
Last day: June 15
Operating budget: $3.2 million
Student demographics: 28 percent African American, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino, 28 percent multiracial, 14 percent Caucasian, 18 percent special education, 12 percent speak English as a second language
Waiting list? Yes
More information: wa.greendot.org
Summit Olympus High School
Location: 409 Puyallup Ave.
Current number of students: 105
Grade level: Ninth grade this year, eventually 9-12
First day of school: Aug. 17
Last day: June 9
Operating budget: $1 million
Student demographics: 40 percent Latino, 20 percent African American, 20 percent Caucasian, 15 percent multiracial, 14 percent special education
Waiting list? Yes
More information: summitps.org