Far from any school board meeting, courtroom or rally about who controls public education, the students at one of Washington’s most contested schools spent their Thursday morning much like their peers across the state.
Shrieks of terror, followed by peals of laughter, filled a biology lab where ninth-graders dissected frogs and sketched their findings. Upstairs, seniors gathered in small book clubs to discuss “The Color Purple.”
And before nearly 400 hungry teenagers poured into the cafeteria, Kamaria Lyles sat at an empty table and pondered what it meant that in just 17 days she would join about 100 of her classmates as the first-ever graduates of a public charter school in the Evergreen State.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Lyles said, “but when you’re coming here every day, just sitting in on lessons, you’re not thinking in the back of your head that this a thing, or like any of it is significant.”
Since the Summit Sierra high school opened four years ago in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, “founding” students like Lyles have been exposed to a different kind of education — not necessarily because of the school’s unique structure. Different because they spent the past four years fighting for their school’s survival and in the process gained what they described as a sense of leadership and self advocacy.
Lyles, for example, will host a financial literacy workshop for her classmates so they know how to build good credit and pay off student loans quickly after college. As of Friday, about 97 percent of the school’s graduating seniors received acceptance letters from a four-year college or university, founding principal Malia Burns said.
As a freshman, Lyles said, “I remember all the arguments about whether our school is constitutional. Nowadays, it’s more like, come on, we’re just here. We’re just trying to learn and reach the goals we set for ourselves four years ago.”
Currently, 3,300 students are enrolled at Washington’s 12 charter schools, according to the Washington State Charter Schools Association.
The Washington Supreme Court only last year granted its blessing to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. But even as that legal victory and the first class of graduates at Summit Sierra and a sister campus in Tacoma symbolize a triumph for charter school-supporters in Washington, the nascent sector’s future isn’t entirely rosy.
In less than a month, financial constraints will shutter a separate charter school in Tacoma. A legislative proposal to secure more money for charter schools died in Olympia after the powerful state teachers union weighed in. And nationally, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders recently pitched his plan to cut taxpayer funding for new charter schools.
“Yeah, there’s a tension there,” said Ashley Clark, a senior at Summit Sierra who plans to attend Western Washington University this fall.
She described herself as liberal, a political ideology she has had to reconcile with her support for a type of school that opponents argue drain money away from traditional school districts.
“In a way, that’s true,” Clark said. “I would challenge, though: That money got to exactly where I needed it to be for me.”
At Summit Sierra, each grade level splits into smaller groups of students that regularly meet with the same mentoring teacher through all four years. Many seniors credited those intimate groups for providing the support they needed to succeed.
But that level of support may not be easy to find on a college campus, especially for students who are the first in their family to seek a higher degree, said Burns.
“So what is it we do here — mentors and counselors and tutor hubs — and what is the college version?” Burns asked, before referencing the writing centers and academic counseling available on college campuses.
Edgiemeh Dela Cruz has given some thought to her upcoming transitions to Pacific Lutheran University, but she downplayed the difficulty of that change.
Dela Cruz already learned how to fight for her own success, she said, during the yearslong political debate over the constitutionality of her school.
“The most significant thing we’ll leave with: Our student voice,” Dela Cruz said.
Correction: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate count of seniors provided by the Summit Sierra charter school. The correct figure is 97.