Seattle Public Schools' framework for Creative Approach Schools will allow those schools to opt out of many district and union requirements as long as 80 percent of their teachers sign on. Some watchdogs are concerned about lack of School Board control and the high rate of teacher agreement needed.

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In the spring of 2010, leaders of Seattle’s teachers union began seeing signs that reform-minded forces would soon make another big push to bring charter schools into Washington state, which the union has long opposed.

Huddled together in their Georgetown office, the leaders came up with a possible pre-emptive strike against a key argument in support of charter schools — that their use of unique methods allows them to help some students who don’t succeed in normal schools.

“We wanted to be able to say that there’s no reason to have charters in Seattle,” union Vice President Jonathan Knapp said. “Because the thing that they always say is that charters provide flexibility. Well, we can have flexibility in public schools, too.”

And so, with agreement from the Seattle Public Schools administration, the concept of a “Creative Approach School” was born.

Two years later, the union leaders, district administrators and Seattle School Board members have agreed on a framework for creation of the schools, which will be allowed to opt out of almost any district or union policy for the sake of tailoring their school to the needs of their students.

District leaders have high hopes for the agreement despite opposition from some city government officials and education activists.

80% must sign on

The framework, approved last month by the School Board, spells out how school principals — if they get 80 percent of their teachers to sign on — can apply for Creative Approach designation. The applications require approval by the superintendent and union leaders.

Fifteen schools, nearly 20 percent of the city’s collection, have expressed interest in applying.

But so far, many are in wealthy parts of the city and already have an alternative bent.

Some city officials, including Councilmember Tim Burgess, believe that’s due to the 80 percent threshold. Burgess and others believe that the everyday challenges of working in high-poverty schools, combined with their high turnover, make it unlikely that they will be able to come up with that much consensus.

In essence, they believe the requirement will prevent the very schools that most need Creative Approach status from getting it.

Some district watchdogs are leery for a different reason — that the new agreement would remove School Board members from policymaking decisions at Creative Approach Schools. They’ve filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court to stop the plan.

“Regardless of the merits of Creative Approach Schools, it’s the School Board that has to make policy,” said Keith Scully, a local attorney representing the activists. “They can’t delegate that authority.”

Short on specifics

Pressed for specifics about what Creative Approach Schools will look like, Knapp has a short response: “I don’t have an answer for that.”

“I’m not the one who’s going to have the ideas on that,” he said. “The idea is that the educators in the school working with the community in that neighborhood come up with the best ways to educate the students in that neighborhood.”

Creative Approach Schools still will be required to teach to federal standards, administer state tests and provide frequent reports on their progress.

But beyond that, they could do largely what they want, as long as it is research-supported and cost-neutral to the district (schools are encouraged to seek additional funding from foundations or government entities).

Some ideas for schools

While specifics are up to schools, here are a few of the ideas that have been thrown around, according to administrators involved in the negotiations and principals considering applying:

• Modified schedule, including varied class period lengths, Saturday school, longer school days or an extended school year.

• Specialized curriculum models, such as approaches based on experiential learning or team teaching.

• Intensive partnerships with community organizations, tutoring programs or parent groups.

• Adoption of textbook and other instructional materials based on specific student needs.

• New ways of assessing students (instead of district-mandated tests).

• Distinct hiring strategies, including the right to refuse placement of teachers transferring from other schools.

• Focus on science, the arts, language immersion or something else.

“There are a lot of things that could fit in it,” said Phil Brockman, executive director of schools for Northeast Seattle. “That’s exactly the point.”

Lawsuit filed

It’s the sheer broadness of it, combined with the lack of a role for the School Board in approving Creative Approach applications, that concerns some district watchdogs.

They filed the lawsuit earlier this month after some School Board members, led by Sharon Peaslee, unsuccessfully tried to amend the framework to add in board approval of applications.

A hearing has been scheduled for October.

Board President Michael DeBell said the board’s oversight role will be met through an annual review of the program.

DeBell is more worried about the other concern, the 80 percent threshold.

Holly Miller, director of Seattle’s Office for Education, said the threshold is especially problematic because some struggling schools may want to reorganize themselves with a very different teaching staff — something that is unlikely to happen if the school must get 80 percent of its current staff to sign on.

Knapp said high staff buy-in is essential for any successful school initiative.

The two schools most interested in the program, Thornton Creek Elementary and Nova High School, are alternative schools in relatively wealthy areas. But John Miner, principal of Thornton Creek, said he’s also heard of interest from several non-alternative schools.

DeBell said he wished the threshold was lower, but 80 percent was the lowest union officials would go. “I’m concerned, yes, but I’m interested in getting the process started and seeing what occurs,” he said.

Several schools are working on applications, with decisions to take place in November and the first programs to get under way in the fall of 2013.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.