A new group of charter schools in Washington, including three in the Seattle area, is opening for fall with high hopes, even as the state continues to sort out what its new charter-school law means and whether it’s constitutional.
Mount View Elementary School in the Highline School District has swelled by about 100 students since Tam Nguyen’s son, George, started there in kindergarten.
In years past, she had few other choices besides private school. But this year, she enrolled him in nearby Rainier Prep, one of eight new charter schools opening in Washington this fall, where there are no portables and school leaders promise more instructional time and more individual attention to its middle-school students.
Rainier Prep and the other new schools will be the first conventional charters to open since voters narrowly approved them in 2012. The state’s first charter, First Place Scholars, was unusual because it was a private school that converted into a publicly funded charter last fall. This year, all the schools are starting from scratch, although some are part of charter chains that operate schools elsewhere.
The new schools also took an extra year to plan.
First Place, which opened just seven months after it was authorized, almost immediately ran afoul of the state’s charter commission because of financial and personnel problems. Despite big improvements since then, it remains under state watch.
The hope among charter advocates is that the next eight schools — three in the Seattle area, three in Tacoma and two in Spokane — will avoid such turmoil. All of the schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, report they have filled their available seats, usually through lotteries.
Summit Sierra, for example, received 230 applications for its ninth-grade class, though it planned for 105 and eventually admitted 130.
Parents are choosing to enroll their children for a mix of reasons.
Nguyen likes that Rainier Prep will focus on getting kids ready for college, but she’s especially eager to get her son out of Mount View.
“It’s too crowded and too overwhelming,” Nguyen said.
She’s not the only parent worried about her child getting lost in a big school.
Natalie Hester Johnson, for example, was fearful that her daughter, Victoria, wouldn’t get the attention she needs in math at a large Seattle high school.
Although she voted against charter schools in 2012, she said she’s impressed with Summit Sierra, which says it will provide a blend of hands-on projects and computer instruction, and where Victoria will be paired with a faculty mentor to make sure she stays on track with her goals.
“I’ve been asking tons of questions,” Hester Johnson said. “I know nothing is perfect, but it sounds pretty doggone good.”
Still, there is one cloud on the horizon: Rainier Prep and Excel Public Charter School both expect to receive a portion of recently passed property-tax levies in the districts where they are located — not just the money that public schools get from the state.
Under the 2012 law, charter schools are supposed to get a share of local school levies passed after they open, but there’s disagreement about whether that refers to the date the charters are authorized or the date students arrive.
For Excel, the amount at issue this school year is about $200,000. The Kent School District won’t hand over the money until the state attorney general gives his opinion, which may take up to nine months.
Meanwhile, a 2013 lawsuit challenging the charter-school law’s constitutionality is still under review at the state Supreme Court.
But none of that has stopped the charters from going forward.
The three Seattle-area charters opening this fall are drawing most of their students from the school districts where they are located.
Rainier Prep eventually will become a middle school with grades 5-8, starting this fall with 80 students in fifth grade and 80 in sixth. It is leasing a refurbished former Catholic school, and its student body is similar to that of nearby Mount View, with 88 percent of students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. About a third are learning English, and 11 percent qualify for special-education services.
Rainier Prep will start at 8:45 a.m. and finish at 4:50 p.m. Most Highline middle schools start at 8:10 a.m. and let out at 2:40 p.m.
The school’s leader and founder, Maggie O’Sullivan, has a master’s degree in education from Stanford University and has worked in Seattle-area public schools for 15 years in several roles, including teacher and principal.
In Kent, Excel Public Charter School expects 88 sixth- and seventh-graders, and plans to grow into a combined middle/high school focused on science, technology, engineering and math. At least 60 percent of Excel’s students are eligible for subsidized lunches, 15 percent are in special education and 15 percent are learning English, based on the school’s preliminary estimates.
Excel’s day also is longer, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and its school year will span 193 days instead of the typical 180.
The school’s founder and executive director, Adel Sefrioui, is a graduate of the University of Washington and Seattle University School of Law, and he’s taught middle school in Chicago as part of the Teach for America program.
In Seattle, Summit Sierra, a new college-prep high school, opened Monday in the Chinatown International District with its inaugural freshman class of 130.
That school and another in Tacoma represent the first out-of-state expansion for a charter chain called Summit Public Schools, which operates seven schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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A third of Summit Sierra’s students are African American, 28 percent are Asian and Pacific Islander, 65 percent are eligible for the federal lunch program, and 14 percent are in special education.
Summit Sierra will teach core subjects such as math in 95-minute classes instead of typical 45-minute periods. And students work on projects with peers at schools throughout Summit’s network.
The school’s executive director, Malia Burns, is a Seattle University graduate and received her master’s degree in education leadership from Teachers College at Columbia University. She taught literature in a Chicago charter-school network for two years.
Charters don’t have elected boards and aren’t bound by many of the rules governing traditional districts, but they’re considered public schools because they receive taxpayer dollars.
Under the 2012 law, up to 40 new charter schools can open in Washington over a five-year period. In addition to the eight opening this fall, another school in South Seattle, the second Green Dot school in the state, is expected to open in 2016, as are two schools approved earlier this month: Summit Public School: West Seattle and Willow Public School in Walla Walla.
The original version of this story, published Aug. 18th, has been corrected. The Green Dot school opening in 2016 will be the second Green Dot charter in this state. The first opened this year in Tacoma.