A charter school in Kent that debuted at summer’s end suddenly closed because of a staff exodus and dwindling student enrollment — making it the fourth Washington charter school to shutter in the past year.
Ashé Preparatory Academy welcomed its inaugural class of 140 students in kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades when it opened in August. Within four years, the school hoped to grow to more than 400 students across grades K-8.
But within a month of opening, several staff quit or stopped showing up to work. And by Oct. 4, the day the school’s oversight board voted unanimously to close the school, enrollment had been sliced in half. Ashé’s last day of classes was Friday.
The staff who remain spent this week packing up books and curricula, said Debra Sullivan, the school’s founder and executive director.
“This is extremely difficult and really kind of heartbreaking,” she said. “There is a lot of work to be done with families who are disappointed.”
Sullivan had long dreamed of starting a school like Ashé, but considered it more seriously in 2015, when she was working as an administrator at Seattle Central College. At that time she was also studying the best ways to teach children of color, those with special needs and children from low-income homes. She took the principles that seemed to pop up over and over across the academic literature and folded them into the model that she eventually pitched as Ashé Preparatory Academy. A state commission that oversees charter schools approved Sullivan’s application in 2018.
But this fall, the school’s ambitious mission was quickly overshadowed by practical problems in the classrooms. Ashé (pronounced ah-SHAY) relied on an “inclusive” classroom model, which means that students with special needs and those with advanced abilities worked alongside their peers. Teaching all levels of students can be tough for any teacher, Sullivan said, but this was particularly true for staff new to the profession.
About six of the school’s nine teachers and paraprofessionals were new, she said. In hindsight, she added, she should have hired a full-time instructional coach to aid junior staff members. The school’s principal and several staff could not be reached for comment.
On Sept. 24, the school’s oversight board held an emergency meeting after three staff resigned or stopped coming to work, meeting minutes suggest. One option the board discussed: Stop serving sixth graders.
The board convened again three days later; at that meeting, staff pleaded for more help. A first-grade teacher asked for more professional coaching, and a sixth-grade paraeducator remarked that similar calls by sixth-grade staff had gone unanswered.
Then more staff resigned and students left, too. By Oct. 1, just 90 students were enrolled, according to board-meeting minutes. And by Oct. 4, enrollment sank to 70 students.
Charter schools in Washington are publicly funded, but privately run. Sullivan said Ashé raised close to $1 million in grants and was also eligible for state funding based on the number of students enrolled. Because so many students left, the school was expected to run a $700,000 deficit this year.
The fledgling charter-school movement in Washington has grown in fits and starts. Nine are still operating, and several have plans to open over the next few years. This month, a state charter-schools nonprofit won nearly $20 million from the federal government to help new charters get off the ground. But three charters have closed this year — and with the closure of Ashé, charter-school advocates and officials say they intend to take a hard look at what went wrong.
“We need time to really deeply learn from and understand what the lessons are coming out of these closures,” said Patrick D’Amelio, chief executive officer for the nonprofit Washington State Charter Schools Association. The nonprofit may enlist a research agency to study commonalities among the schools that closed, he added.
Ashé in particular had “tremendous” community support, which makes its closure all the more surprising, said Cindi Williams, chair of the Washington State Charter School Commission.
“I don’t really even have words for it,” she said.
Several Ashé students have enrolled in Renton public schools, school district officials said; three have enrolled at Rainier Valley Leadership Academy, a charter school in Seattle.
Sullivan discussed Ashé’s closure at the Washington State Charter School Commission’s monthly meeting Thursday.