There were signs of trouble even before Ashé Preparatory Academy opened its doors.
First, administrators struggled over the summer to find a building to house the new charter school. When they eventually found one in Kent, it was so difficult to get to that some students would spend two hours each way on the bus. Then came the business side of setting up a new school, something its founder said she didn’t have expertise in.
“We were always a little behind and running to catch up,” said Ashé (pronounced ah-SHAY) founder Debra Sullivan.
After school started in August, several teachers began calling in sick; some stopped coming in altogether. In an October move that stunned lawmakers and education officials alike, Ashé suddenly closed.
Why the school closed is now more clear: Staff didn’t feel supported, the school’s location was troublesome and administrators strained to set up basic operations that keep schools afloat.
Charter-school officials and educators must reckon with a serious question. What will prevent other charter schools from reaching a similar fate?
The issue is particularly pressing since Ashé is the fourth Washington state charter school to close this year. Destiny Middle School and Soar Academy, both in Tacoma, and Excel Public Charter School, which resided in the same building Ashé ultimately leased, also ended operations. Together, the three schools were struggling to meet a mix of financial or academic benchmarks, according to a new report from the Washington State Charter School Commission, which oversees the state’s charters. Among them, state data shows, about 700 students lost their schools.
The closures have riled lawmakers, charter-school advocates and researchers. Ashé was backed by a swell of community support, a fact that makes its closure all the more perplexing — and for some, painful. The closures add to the mountain of troubles that Washington’s charters have faced; they achieved legal stability only last year. Charters here are publicly funded but privately run.
“What’s concerning to us is how quickly this failed,” said Joshua Halsey, executive director of the Washington State Charter School Commission.
Officials were quick to assign blame. In a recent House Education Committee hearing, Chair Sharon Tomiko Santos grilled Halsey, saying that, if “anyone was going to make a charter school a success,” it would have been Sullivan. “Why did the Charter School Commission not exercise greater oversight and due diligence before the charter school even opened?” she later told The Seattle Times.
Several officials, including Halsey and Santos, said now is the time to get serious about solutions.
A group of University of Washington researchers have taken up part of that challenge: understanding why the schools closed in the first place.
“It’s high-enough stakes,” said Robin Lake, director of the UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, who is overseeing research into the recent closures (like Education Lab, the Center receives funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). The researchers don’t yet have results, but are conducting interviews with the schools’ directors and taking a deep dive into data and documents. Hopefully, she said, the study will, “help other schools avoid the problems this set of schools ran into.”
Last school year, about 2,300 students attended charter schools in Washington, state data shows. Charter schools here have their own governing boards and aren’t bound to the same curricula as traditional public schools. With that flexibility comes challenges: Schools must secure a school building, hire staff, and set up benefits and payroll, for instance. Many charters start off on shoestring budgets since money from the state kicks in after school starts.
The Washington State Charter School Commission oversees these efforts. Staff vet charter schools and advise school leaders in the lead-up to a school’s opening. They are now examining common challenges for the state’s charters, such as paying competitive teacher salaries, Halsey said. They are also looking at charters that are thriving to identify successful strategies, such as how to hire and retain good teachers.
By the time Ashé closed, half the school’s staff had quit; student enrollment had halved, too.
Ashé was founded with a unique mission based on the principals of Kwanzaa. And Sullivan said she spent years researching best practices for educating students of color, those from low-income homes and those who need extra support.
But leading up to the school’s opening, Ashé’s leaders were preoccupied with tasks that had nothing to do with academics. Traditional schools usually have district staff to help with operations. But Ashé had few staff to handle complicated projects, such as researching school sites and zoning laws, or seeking a license before hiring staff. This left little time for administrators to train staff, including first-year teachers who needed more support, Sullivan said.
Unlike certain charter schools, which are part of a consortium of schools or enlist a business-management organization, Ashé took care of its own logistics. Sullivan said the commission could have offered more “support on the business end” — something akin to what better-resourced charters have through a consortium, she said.
For the most part, though, Sullivan said the commission did its best to support Ashé. She said she may reapply for a new charter, this time with some revisions to her application.
“I wasn’t just opening a school,” she said. “I was opening a district office … a startup business, and a pilot project all at the same time.”
If a new application is approved, she said, Ashé could reopen in 2021 or 2022.