Just months after it opened, First Place Scholars, the first charter school in Washington state, is in turmoil.
Its first principal resigned in November, more than half of its original board of directors have left, too, and the state’s charter-school commission has identified more than a dozen potential problems that need to be fixed soon if the school wants to keep its doors open.
Among them: hiring a qualified special-education teacher for the roughly two dozen students who need those services, and completing background checks on some of its nonteaching staff.
Members of the Washington State Charter School Commission, charged with vetting and overseeing charter schools, say they are hopeful that First Place will turn itself around and that the school is on track to complete its corrective action plan on time.
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But if it doesn’t, the school will face stricter negotiations that could ultimately lead to its closure.
The school’s rocky start is bad news for charter supporters, who barely got a charter law passed here two years ago after trying for nearly two decades.
Joshua Halsey, the commission’s executive director, said his group takes the school’s problems seriously.
“We’re monitoring this very closely,” he said.
First Place opened in September as the first charter under the 2012 measure, which has been hailed as one of the strongest in the country and allows for up to eight charters to be opened each year for five years.
Campaign supporters promised that the bar for instructional quality and sound financial management would be set high for nonprofits seeking to open charters — free, independently run but publicly funded schools that aren’t bound by many of the same restrictions governing typical public schools. In exchange for agreeing to a set of goals, called a charter, charter schools receive roughly as much public money as traditional public school districts do.
So far, the state’s charter commission has approved seven other charter schools. Six will open in 2015 and one in 2016. Spokane Public Schools, which also may authorize charter schools, has approved two, both opening in 2015.
First Place was the first charter to open in part because it wasn’t starting from scratch. It had long been a private elementary school, founded to serve homeless students, in partnership with Seattle Public Schools.
Located in the former Odessa Brown medical clinic in Seattle’s Central District, the K-5 school focuses on students who have been homeless or have experienced a variety of other traumas. Classes have 14 or 15 students each. Becoming a charter is helping First Place expand from about 45 students to up to 100.
Halsey, the state charter commission’s executive director, chalked some of First Place’s problems up to being the state’s first charter school.
“It’s one thing for a district to open a new school — it’s a whole different story when you talk about a whole district being established,” Halsey said. “And that’s pretty much what these charter schools are.”
When First Place opened this fall, some said a lot was riding on its success.
But Steve Sundquist, the charter commission chairman, said Tuesday that he didn’t think First Place’s troubles represent a setback for the state’s broader charter-school movement.
“This will not be the only case of struggle,” he said. “But I believe ultimately we’re going to see a successful story here.”
Troubles pop up
First Place hit its first bump when Halsey sat in on a board meeting in September and noticed the board went into executive session, saying they wanted to discuss personnel matters, which is appropriate, but also “other” issues, which is not a legal reason for public boards to meet in private. Several parents then complained to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction about the school’s special-education practices, prompting Halsey to visit the school Oct. 30.
During that visit, Halsey noted more than a dozen ways that First Place appeared to be out of compliance with what it had promised in its charter contract. Along with the lack of a special-education teacher and the failure to do all the required staff background checks, the school had a number of other issues. Its fire-drill plans were out of date, for example, listing emergency contacts who no longer worked at the school. The school’s main office had no documentation of any teacher’s certification, and officials couldn’t tell whether the school planned to operate for the required 180 days. And its board had just seven members, even though its own bylaws called for a minimum of 15.
Among the most pressing issues for Halsey was the lack of a teacher with training in special education, given that nearly 20 percent of the school’s students need those services. Earlier in the school year, a contractor was helping those students, but she left Oct. 29. Federal law requires that disabled students get the services they need.
On Dec. 1, Halsey notified the school that it was putting students’ health, safety and educational welfare at risk, and gave First Place until Dec. 10 to submit a plan for getting back on track.
Administrative turnover seems to be part of the problem.
By the time Halsey visited in late October, the school had already lost five of its original seven board members, including President Dan Seydel, who was unanimously voted off. In his resignation letter, Seydel said the daily work of running the school had become too much for him to handle along with running his small business. He declined to comment for this story.
Then, in late November, Principal Evie Livingston resigned. Livingston declined to comment, too, beyond saying her departure from First Place was amicable.
“I believe in what they’re doing,” she said. “And I believe they’re going to be successful on the track that they’re on now.”
Kristina Sawyckyj-Moreland, a mother of two First Place students, said her special-needs daughter has not received any services since school started. She also said she’s concerned about the degree to which teachers are scraping together curricula. She keeps her children at the school because of the teachers, who she said are dedicated to the kids.
“We’re able to do it”
The school’s new leader is Linda Whitehead, who joined the First Place board in early November and started as the de-facto principal Nov. 24.
Whitehead, a former superintendent in the Marysville School District, said the school will submit its corrective action plan by the end of the day Wednesday, and she plans to remain principal for the foreseeable future.
She said she will hire a special-education teacher by Jan. 31. In the meantime, she said, some outside agencies are helping students with the highest needs.
Her staff is finishing background checks, she said, and she plans to hire two more full-time classroom aides.
Some members of the state charter-school commission said they did everything they could to vet First Place’s application to become a charter school.
“Everything in their application … and the people they had on the board pointed to their ability to launch a school,” said Trish Millines Dziko.
Dziko and Sundquist asked the public to give the school time to do what the state is asking it to do.
At a board meeting Tuesday night, Dawn Mason, the new president of the board, said the school expects to be held accountable.
“We’re able to do it. We have board members with the credentials to do the work,” she said, adding that the corrective action plan shows how seriously the state charter commission is taking its job.
Mason praised Whitehead, as did Halsey, the state commission’s executive director, saying Whitehead has the experience needed to help First Place Scholars succeed.
The board formally approved Whitehead’s appointment Tuesday.
After the vote, board members broke into a round of applause and several choruses of “Thank you, thank you.”
Seattle Times reporter John Higgins contributed to this story.