Like teachers across Seattle, Laurie Reddy spent Tuesday morning making sure her first-grade classroom was cheerful and organized for Wednesday’s first day of school.
But Wednesday isn’t just the start of another school year for Reddy and the rest of the staff at First Place Scholars, which has for 25 years served homeless students.
Instead, it marks the school’s conversion from a private school into a public one — as the very first charter school to open in the state of Washington.
On Tuesday, to the cheers of staff, alumni, volunteers and charter-school advocates, a recent First Place graduate and his mother, both formerly homeless, cut an oversized red ribbon across the front of the school, located in the former Odessa Brown medical clinic in the Central District.
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While the mission of the K-5 school is to provide education and services for children and their families, First Place is also carrying the hopes of many education-reform advocates that small, mission-focused schools can achieve better results for disadvantaged students than traditional public schools.
“A lot is riding on their success for the whole state,” said David Bley of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed more than $7 million to the effort to open and support Washington’s first charter schools.
Washington voters turned down charter schools three times since the mid-’90s but in November 2012 narrowly approved an initiative that made Washington the 42nd state to allow charters, which receive taxpayer support but operate with more autonomy than other public schools.
Their legitimacy is still under attack. The League of Women Voters, the Washington Education Association and El Centro de la Raza have challenged the initiative in court, saying charter schools should not be entitled to public funding.
”Our concern is still that we have private organizations running these schools with taxpayer dollars yet they’re not directly accountable to taxpayers,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.
The State Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case Oct. 28.
In the meantime, the Washington State Charter School Commission has approved seven nonprofit organizations to open charter schools. The Spokane School District approved another.
Of those, only First Place was ready to launch this September.
Charter-school advocates say Washington’s charter-school law built in a rigorous selection and oversight process, and mandated that the schools serve at-risk students. And although opponents have pointed to research that questions whether charters, on average, perform any better than other public schools, supporters say charters have the potential to be more creative and flexible than traditional public schools and could serve as a laboratory for new teaching strategies and curricula.
The Gates Foundation, in partnership with the League of Education Voters, created the Washington Charter Schools Association to help provide leadership training and technical and financial support to the new charter schools, and to assist future applicants.
“Charter schools in isolation can’t accomplish anything,” Bley said.
Bill Gates also personally donated $3 million to signature gathering for the initiative and then to support the initiative campaign.
Although Washington’s charter schools are free of some of the regulations and bureaucracy that govern other public schools, they must still meet state and federal learning standards or risk losing their charters, which initially will last five years.
“If in the end they fail the kids, we will have to close them,” said Steve Sundquist, chair of the State Charter School Commission, which can authorize up to 40 schools over the next four years.
Sundquist, a former Seattle School Board member, said he was excited about the conversion of First Place Scholars into a charter because that will allow the elementary school to increase its enrollment from 45 to 98 students and add resources to support a particularly vulnerable student population.
“Seeing this school open is the culmination of a lot of people’s work,” he said.
Classes at First Place Scholars will have 14 or 15 students each. Kindergarten and first-grade teachers will have a classroom assistant; grades 2 through 5 will share an assistant. The curriculum will focus on science, math, technology, engineering and the arts.
The school’s mission will expand to include children who have experienced a variety of traumas, as well as those who have been homeless. The new public funding also will go toward new classroom technology, additional teacher training and educational resources. The school will continue to raise private money to support the services it provides to families. It has never charged tuition.
The goal, said Board Chair Dan Seydel, is to meet children where they are academically and have them working at grade level by fifth grade.
Sitting on a small chair in her first-grade classroom, Reddy, 22, one of the school’s brand-new teachers, said she herself experienced physical abuse as a child. She said she was drawn to First Place because the school’s mission is not just to deliver lessons but to help the children and their families stabilize their lives.
“It’s been my dream and hope to be the adult I wished I’d had as a kid,” Reddy said.
Before the ribbon cutting, former First Place parent Jonny Fernandez said she arrived at the school six years ago, a homeless single mother who needed a school for her son, Tibet.
“I was looking for education, but I found support,” she said. ”Everybody here is welcome.”
Her son, she said, was a shy kid when he started. Now, she said, she has to tell him, “ ‘Tibet, be quiet please.’ ”
After the ribbon cutting, Tibet, in black slacks, an oversized black suit coat and poise beyond his 10 years, said he was surprised that the school would open Wednesday with more than twice as many students as before.
“I’m glad more kids are coming. It means more opportunities are available,” he said.