KENT — Sitting in a circle with her new sixth-grade class, Darozyl Touch asked her students to reflect on the leadership exercise they had just completed.
It was Wednesday morning, their third day of school. Most didn’t talk. One boy grunted, muttering that the lesson bored him. Another, Xavier, tucked himself into a small cubby and quietly paged through a book.
As Touch tried a different prompt, her classroom assistant interrupted — wondering why Princess, a girl in the corner, kept chewing on a bloody tissue.
“My tooth fell out,” she said matter-of-factly.
Watching from the back of the classroom, Debra R. Sullivan chuckled. “Smooth sailing for our very first week? Don’t count on it,” she said. “We expect there to be bumps — always.”
Sullivan founded Ashé Preparatory Academy, which last week opened its doors in Kent with an inaugural class of 140 kindergarten, first-, second- and sixth-grade students. At full enrollment, in 2023, it will serve a projected 450 students in grades K-8. So far, 75% of its students identify as black, 20% as multiracial, 1% as Latino, 3% as other and 1% as white.
The academy joins nine other charter schools operating across Washington and serving about 3,500 students this year. What makes this one different: Sullivan and founding Principal Monique Harrison designed the school around the seven principles of Kwanzaa — unity, purpose, creativity, conviction, self-determination, cooperative economics and collective work or responsibility.
The teachers — all but one of whom identify as people of color, an anomaly in Washington schools — spent their first week sharing those values with their new students.
“I’d never heard of a school with a message like this,” said kindergarten teacher Jasmine Jessie.
“It spoke to my past,” she added. “It’s always been a passion of mine to share this ideal and give back to kids who look like me.”
Teachers try to use different learning styles to appeal to all students, such as those who learn better by listening to teachers or others who prefer to experiment in groups. A second-grade teacher, for example, concluded a math lesson with a rap song about adding to 10. Some students appeared riveted; others practiced with their hands.
With its debut, Ashé (pronounced ah-SHAY) is the first charter school to open since the publicly funded but privately run schools won a constitutional blessing from the state Supreme Court last fall, the latest in a long-running dispute between charter advocates and opponents in this state.
Sullivan originally planned to launch Ashé in Skyway, an unincorporated part of King County between Seattle and Renton.
Unlike traditional school districts, however, charters can’t issue bonds to build new facilities. They often instead stretch the operational funds they receive from the state to renovate existing commercial or office space, both of which Sullivan struggled to find in Skyway.
“We spent a lot of time this summer just trying to find a space so we could open on time,” Sullivan said.
Ultimately, she found a temporary home next door to a church in Kent — the same building where Excel Public Charter School abruptly shuttered before summer.
It was the third charter school to close this year, along with Destiny Middle School and Soar Academy, both in Tacoma.
Green Dot Public Schools, which operated the Destiny and Excel campuses, cited low enrollment for its sudden decision in June to close the schools.
That left families — and staff — with little time to figure out where to enroll their children this fall.
“We’ve contacted every family at least two to three times … and provided one-to-one supports helping them identify which school they’d like to transfer to,” said Bree Dusseault, executive director of Green Dot in Washington.
Green Dot also received a grant to bus at least 17 students from Kent to the network’s remaining campus in South Seattle. Some teachers and administrators from Excel also transferred to the Rainier Valley school.
Leah Reisberg stayed put: She served meals for the students at Excel and now does the same at Ashé.
“It definitely came as a surprise,” Reisberg said of the closure. “It was like the last week of school (but) I didn’t have to go far to find another home.”
At Soar, the governing board announced its closure in January, offering families more time to plan their next steps. Some students found a place at Ashé, but the bulk of them returned to Tacoma Public Schools, said Soar’s board President Thelma Jackson.
“Surprisingly, a number of families have chosen to home-school rather than return” to a traditional school district, Jackson said.
For the charter sector as a whole, the recent school closures offered new lessons on what it takes to dissolve what’s essentially a stand-alone school district: Which student records have to be maintained? Who collects the money from the sale of any leftover desks, textbooks and school property?
The sector’s also looking forward to some firsts, including an initial batch of performance reviews that three schools will begin next year in order to stay in operation. And over the next year, five additional charters will prepare to open their doors in fall 2020.
“There’s so much momentum now,” said Maggie Meyers, spokeswoman for the Washington State Charter Schools Association. “This is our first year without any legal stuff looming.”
At Ashé, the students had more important things on their minds.
Xavier, the sixth grader, left Touch’s class early to volunteer in the principal’s office.
“I didn’t get all that much help at my old school,” said Xavier, who attended an elementary campus in South Seattle. “I’m not saying my old school was bad, but I’m one of those different people. And people who are different are OK here.”