Early Monday morning, Spokane resident Brenda McDonald caught a flight, slightly delayed by the October fog, for an 8 o’clock meeting in Seattle. Until last summer, McDonald was the principal of a public school, as were the two women she was coming to see, Bellamy-McClain and Maggie O’Sullivan. Then, they all left their jobs and leapt into the state’s emerging charter school scene.
Facilitating their jump was the Washington State Charter Schools Association, a Seattle-based group that formed last spring with $800,000 of start-up money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Created in response to the charter school initiative that passed in November, the association picked McDonald, Bellamy-McClain and Sullivan to comprise its first cohort of charter leaders that it hopes to nurture. Each received a $100,000 stipend for a year of planning.
They’ve been meeting weekly in Seattle to go over ideas and consult with association staff who have had experience with charter schools around the country. The three have also traveled to San Francisco, New Orleans, and Denver to visit charter schools in those cities.
“What we saw are two different type of models,” McDonald says, taking a break with her other cohort members from their Monday meeting to talk with Seattle Weekly. “We tend to think of them as charter school 1.0 and 2.0.” The former, she says, emphasized college readiness, with a “lot of data-driven dialogue.” The latter added “soft skills,” like those needed for leadership. Now, McDonald continues, she and her cohort peers are trying to create “3.0” charter schools, distinguished by their incorporation of online learning and a more individualized approach.
As her observations reflect, the state is coming late to the charter school movement. Voters here turned down charter school initiatives not once by three times over the past two decades. Opponents argued that charters have a mixed success record nationally and would drain desperately-needed resources from existintg public schools. Charter schools are public schools, albeit ones not controlled by district or state superintendents, and so receive state funding.
Initiative 1240, the fourth and last initiative, which allows for the creation of 40 charters over five years, only narrowly passed. So this has not been the most receptive climate for aspiring charter school leaders.
Yet such leaders do exist, and now they are showing their hands. Today, “letters of intent” from would-be charter founders are due into the newly-formed state Charter School Commission. Full applications must be in by Nov. 22.
As of this posting, 19 individuals and organizations have declared themselves interested, some declaring an intent to launch schools next fall and others the following fall. Los Angeles-based Green Dot, one of the better-known charter organizations, and unusual in that it boasts a unionized workforce, submitted a letter indicating that it wants to start a middle school in Tacoma. Summit Public Schools, a Silicon Valley-based charter organization focusing on technology-heavy “blended learning,” registered its intent to start two schools, including one in Seattle.
Also submitting letters were a number of locals: an individual from Grays Harbor who envisions a military-style school; one in Spokane who plans to focus on highly capable students; and yet another in Yakima who proposes a dual-language program.
McDonald plans to stay in Spokane with her charter school, which she says will have students take on eight-week internships or community projects intended to develop leadership skills. The Spokane school district is unique in that it has enthusiastically embraced charters. It surveyed families asking what kind of schools they would like to see, is about to launch a center that will coordinate charter schools with regular public schools in the district, and may have a common enrollment system for both kinds of schools, according to McDonald.
The Seattle district has taken the opposite approach, having voted last year to oppose charter school Initiative 1240. So perhaps it’s no surprise that neither Bellamy-McClain, the former principal of Seattle’s Emerson Elementary, nor O’Sullivan, a South Seattle resident, are eying Seattle for their schools. Bellamy-McClain intends to open her charter in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood; O’Sullivan is scouting south King County locations.
Yet even in Seattle, charter aspirations flourish. Hannah Williams, a 30-year-old former teacher at Aki Kurose Middle School who just got a Masters in Education at Harvard University, says she’d like to start a charter school in a Pioneer Square warehouse.
“I dream of what MOHAI looks like,” she says referring to the inventive open spaces of the rebuilt Museum of History and Industry.
The plan for an untraditional space matches the envisioned curriculum, which Williams says will not revolve around classes per se. Instead, students will pursue “deeper experiential learning opportunities” through individual projects, with their teachers acting as “coaches.” Every two to three weeks, they will pick a new theme to work on—say “power” or “equilibrium,” she says. While doing so, she continues, they might write blog posts, or “make an episode for their YouTube channel.”
Like the Charter Schools Association cohort, Williams is aided in her aspirations by the Gates Foundation, which gave her a $100,000 planning grant. The foundation has long advocated for charter schools.
In a more indirect way, the foundation also has a role in the decision by Seattle’s First Place to turn into a charter school. First Place is a small private school that serves homeless kids. It charges no tuition, making it possibly the only school of its kind in the country, according to emeritus board member and former legislator Dawn Mason.
Yet, Mason says the cost of serving its students—around $25,000 per pupil—is unusually expensive because First Place offers free meals and social services in addition to classes. The school has survived with grants from a number of organizations, including the Gates Foundation and Microsoft.
If First Place became a charter school, however, it would receive public funds. That was central to the school’s decision to convert, according to Mason, who just finished six months of consulting for the school as it worked on its transition. Not only would it allow the school to expand (from 45 kids this year to perhaps 75), but it would make First Place less reliant on grant dollars—something Mason says the school assumed the Gates Foundation and Microsoft would want, particularly given the strong support both have articulated for charter schools.
Not all those who want to start charters will necessarily get the chance. All must have their applications approved by either the state Charter Commission or the Spokane district (the only one so far to get approved by the state as a charter “authorizer”).
The commission has set a “very high bar,” says Jim Spady, the Dick’s Drive-In entrepreneur and longtime charter advocate. The application is extensive and requires documentation of all aspects of a school plan, including “a very capable team,” Spady notes. He says he’s nevertheless confident that a number of entities will win the commission’s approval.
Winning broader approval in the state may be a dicier affair. But Bellamy-McClain, for one, is optimistic. “Once I’m able to prove that our model works,” she says, “I’ll be open to starting other schools.”
UPDATE: As of the Charter Commission’s 5 o’clock deadline today, it had received 24 letters of intent.