Though they are too new to have a solid track record, operate under a cloud of legal uncertainty and often exist only in portable classrooms, Washington’s charter schools are growing. So why are families enrolling?

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By the time Jaliel Fellows was 11, school had become an increasing source of misery. As a third-grader, he’d developed severe anxiety around testing. In fourth, he was labeled “special needs,” and by fifth, he’d fallen far behind other kids his age.

This was a new challenge for his mother, Kiana Fellows, who’d ushered two older children through Seattle Public Schools without much trouble. But last year, with sixth grade looming, Fellows made a leap — mostly out of desperation.

She’d considered home-schooling for Jaliel, but that would have meant quitting her job. She dreamed of placing her son in a private school but had no way to afford it. So last fall, Fellows enrolled him in the first class of students at South Seattle’s Rainier Valley Leadership Academy, which, as one of the state’s 10 fledging charter schools, has staked its reputation on catching up students of color, like Jaliel.

“I didn’t feel like he was getting a full year of education” in his previous public school, Fellows said. “I didn’t think he’d be ready for sixth grade. For me, it was make the leap, or quit my job. In Seattle, you’re forced to go to school in your neighborhood — even if it’s not helping you.”

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle.

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Washington voters were among the last in the country to approve charter schools, which are free, publicly funded and, in this state, run by independent nonprofits. The oldest have been open less than three years, so their academic track record remains a question mark. And all operate under a cloud of uncertainty, as challenges to their legality continue to work through the Washington courts.

Yet there are now about 2,400 students from the Seattle, Kent, Tacoma, Highline and Spokane school districts enrolled in charters, which have more freedom than traditional public schools to hire and teach as they like. In return for that flexibility, each must submit to annual audits of their fiscal stability and academic performance.

Some are already at capacity, others see new students sign up each month. And two more charters are set to open this fall — one in Tukwila, the other in Walla Walla.

Their primary focus from the beginning has been students at risk of falling behind in traditional public schools. And so far, that promise has been kept. Seventy-five percent of charter students in Western Washington are kids of color, 63 percent come from low-income families and 16 percent are learning-disabled.

But skeptics warn that accountability in these schools is minimal, since charters are governed by private boards, not elected officials. More broadly, opponents are concerned that the model, which funnels state money away from school districts, will harm traditional public schools and their 1.1 million students.

In Seattle, where educators vigorously opposed the incursion of charters, School Board members point out that each student who enrolls in one means anywhere from $7,000 to $13,700 less for the district. Give us time to get better, board President Leslie Harris has implored, pointing to improved performance at several high-poverty schools.

Yet gaps between middle-class and disadvantaged children in Seattle are widening, and in a district that already had some of the largest academic disparities in the U.S., parents of minority kids are losing patience.

“Ready for a change”

The possibility of closure did not faze the steady stream of families asking recruiter Arneidra Lloyd for application information, as she sat in the Seattle Housing Authority’s New Holly Park office last December, informing renters about the charter run by Green Dot Public Schools in portable classrooms around the corner.

Lloyd rarely had to rise from her makeshift desk to approach them. Alerted by word-of-mouth, they came right to her.

“I’m ready for a change,” said Zakiyyah Ali, who saw two older children through Seattle’s education system but worried her youngest would be overwhelmed by the large South End middle school she’d been assigned to.

“In Seattle Public Schools, they just throw the kids in and good luck. Nobody gets what they need because the teachers are spending all their time keeping order.”

Those worries nagged. But what finally pushed Ali to sign her name on Green Dot’s clipboard was a teacher at Wing Luke Elementary, who’d pulled her aside and whispered that Ali’s daughter had been spotted at a neighborhood barbecue hosted by the charter network.

“Don’t send her there,” Ali recalled the teacher saying. “Her academics will suffer.”

Ali rolled her eyes. After five years in Seattle Public Schools, the girl’s test scores were already “very disappointing,” she said.

Lloyd, who will run Green Dot’s yet-to-open high school this fall, is a lifelong public-education supporter with deep ties to Seattle and recent experience as the principal of an elementary school in Renton. Despite these bona fides, she’d been stymied by the maze of requirements to get her own daughter screened for advanced learning in Seattle. By the time Lloyd finally navigated to the correct page on the school district’s website, the test date had passed.

“As a parent, I understand the need for other options,” she said while prospective Green Dot applicants flipped through her school’s literature.

A different approach

Seattle’s three charters are operated by two nonprofit networks — Green Dot and Summit — both based in California, each with slightly different emphases. Summit offers go-at-your-own-pace tailoring. Green Dot positions itself as a place where kids who have languished can quickly make up ground.

That personalized style has attracted families frustrated by the one-size-fits-all approach typical of public education. But the biggest draw, parents say, is the possibility of attending a school outside their neighborhood boundaries. (Seattle does allow students to apply for preferred schools, though in practice it’s difficult to get into a building other than the one designated by a home address.)

Shirline Wilson, for example, was initially cool to the idea of charters. She’d read about their spotty record in other states and chose more conventional channels to get help for her son.

She joined the PTA of his West Seattle elementary school, increasingly concerned when she visited Miles’ classroom and found the boy crying, or under a table. He was finally diagnosed with a learning disability, but not before repeatedly telling her, “Mom, I’m not smart.”

A private Montessori school worked better. But there were few children or teachers of color, something Wilson considered important to her son’s idea of himself as a scholar.

Meanwhile, Rainier Prep, just outside Seattle’s school-district boundary in Highline, seemed to offer exactly what Wilson envisioned: an emphasis on college readiness for children of color. So, with some apprehension, she enrolled him.

“At the time, Rainier Prep was just getting started — it didn’t even look like a school — and I had not heard positive things about charters,” Wilson said. “But I really wanted high rigor, and for Miles to be among people who look like him. We applied, were accepted immediately and have not looked back because it’s truly been transformative for us.”

Wilson now works for the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform, and has become a vocal advocate for this alternative model — at least as it’s practiced in Washington.

“Hungry learner” finds a home

Charters are attracting a handful of white families, too, including Summit Sierra High in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, which caters to kids who thrive with an individualized program.

David Budd enrolled his son Charlie there, after nine years of Catholic school. Most of his classmates were moving on to ninth grade at other Catholic schools like O’Dea and Kennedy, or to Seattle’s public Garfield High, but all three felt too rigid for Charlie, described by his father as “a hungry learner.”

“He’s really motivated, and he wants to go fast,” Budd said. “He gets frustrated if things slow down too much.”

By December, after four months at Summit, Charlie had completed his entire freshman math curriculum and was plunging into sophomore work, as well as Advanced Placement biology — something that would have taken another two years at a traditional school.

Like Wilson at Rainier Prep, Budd had been lukewarm toward the idea of charters, particularly for their reputation of cherry-picking the best students and dumping more challenging ones. But his views began to change when he saw the breadth of diversity at Summit. There were pink-haired kids and super-genius kids and kids wearing hijabs — all of them working at their own pace on web-based curricula aimed at college.

“This seemed like a very cool thing. They figure out exactly what you need on your transcript and reverse-engineer from there,” Budd said. “They don’t leave it on the students to suddenly realize in 12th grade, ‘Oh, I only took two years of foreign language and I needed three.’ ”

State officials say a similarly proactive approach governs their oversight of charters, which must meet strict academic and financial bench marks set out in a five-year contract. Ongoing failure in either category will mean closure, said Joshua Halsey, executive director of Washington’s Charter School Commission.

Looming large in his mind are implosions like that of the ECOT charter network in Ohio, which siphoned millions of dollars from public schools over its 17-year history and posted graduation rates under 50 percent.

Closer to home, First Place Scholars, a charter school for homeless children in Seattle, reverted to private-school status after failing to create a sustainable budget, among other problems.

“We now have an incredibly high bar on the front end before authorizing a school — it’s not just ‘do whatever you want,’ ” Halsey said. “And we won’t let a school operate for years without results.”

Frustrated parents

That promise for decisive action in the face of failure speaks to frustrations voiced by many parents, whether their children are in charters or not. Bureaucracies move slowly, they say, but a student’s time to learn is fleeting.

Most of the sixth-graders enrolled at Green Dot’s leadership academy, for example, had floundered in traditional public schools. More than 70 percent started this year below grade level in math or reading, said Principal Walter Chen.

But an observer might not realize it.

In Brad Earl’s math class, 20 girls and boys in navy-blue uniforms raised their hands to puzzle aloud through the missteps that had led one to an incorrect answer. Fellows’ son Jaliel, once classified as two grade levels behind, was among them. After four months at the leadership academy, he has progressed a full grade level, she said.

Next door in language arts, 15 students were preparing to read “The Odyssey.”

In social studies, 17 children — all kids of color — sat at tables arranged in a rectangle, learning about Socratic seminars and the meaning of terms like “norm” and “perspective.”

“Use them in a sentence,” said teacher Yomalis Rosario.

A girl named Naima raised her hand.

“The norm is an expectation that we should listen to each other,” she said.

“Perspective? It’s ‘another point of view,’ ” said the next girl over, dressed in a hijab.