Groups outline plans for state’s first charter schools

  • By Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
  • Sunday, November 24, 2013 12:40pm
  • Local NewsNorthwest

SEATTLE — Drop-outs, gang members, kids who love sports, children with disabilities and creative kids who can’t sit still are among the children charter school developers say they’ll teach in the new public schools they want to open in Washington state next year.

Their applications, due last week to the state Charter School Commission, span the academic spectrum, the Cascade Range and the Internet.

A year ago, Washington state voters approved the opening of up to 40 of the alternative public schools. Advocates say they are innovative tools for educating children, while opponents are suing to have the new law declared unconstitutional, saying it interferes with the state’s obligation to pay for public schools, set a uniform curriculum and establish other rules.

While a King County Superior Court judge mulls those arguments, more than 20 groups and individuals have formally expressed interest in opening a charter school.

The next step will be public hearings about those plans and then approval of the first charters in February. The first schools would open to students for the 2014-15 school year.

Here are profiles of some of those hoping to open the state’s first charter schools.

Drop-outs, addicts, gang members

Seventeen years ago, Por Vida Academy was one of the first charter schools in Texas. Now the San Antonio group wants to start a school in Yakima for young people who are far away from graduating from high school.

Joseph Rendon, now superintendent of a small group of Por Vida charter schools in Texas, says his students have drug problems, anger management issues, are active in gangs, have been arrested and have dropped out of school at least once.

Most students are between 16- and 18-years-old, Hispanic and were out of school for at least a year before enrolling.

The school gives them heavy doses of social work and counseling, as well as education in small classes. The high school has 250 or fewer students at any one time, but the population is always changing. Patience, tolerance plus lots of individual attention are keys to Por Vida’s approach, Rendon said.

The school doesn’t brag about graduation rates or test scores, because Rendon acknowledges their statistics are not very impressive.

He talks instead about people like a young woman who was on heroin last year and now is drug-free, playing volleyball, has perfect attendance and is working toward a career after high school.

School without walls

Hannah Williams was a classroom teacher in Western Washington for 10 years before going back to school to get a master’s degree in school development from Harvard University.

The 30-year-old former theater geek started focusing on opening a school in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood after a professor told her to imagine a real place while dreaming of her ideal school.

Creative kids who need movement and action — especially boys — are the target audience for her proposed middle school, which she is calling the Out of the Box Learning Studio. She wants to start with just fifth- and sixth-graders, but eventually grow to include grades 5-12.

Kids will direct their own learning, but will work in small groups with a teacher to figure out where to take their ideas.

They will go outside the building to learn geometry from architecture or history by walking around the neighborhood. Students will go on learning missions and share their results on video or other media both within the school and online.

Military kids with special needs

Military mom Calyn Holdaway says her husband, Daren, asked for a compassionate reassignment from Japan to Joint Base Lewis-McChord because they heard Washington has good resources for children with autism.

The Gig Harbor mother of three kids with special needs says she found medical help on and around the base, but discovered local schools couldn’t keep up with the influx of military families moving for the same reasons.

After years of research and advocacy, Holdaway found appropriate schools for her children. Now she wants to help others by opening a small charter school with a hands-on, project-based curriculum, supported by plenty of adult help.

She says hundreds of parents have contacted her to talk about special education for military families since a story about her oldest son ran in the local military newspaper.

They’re shopping around for a building in Tacoma.

Across the border

Gene Haag is a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, father of six who says online charter schools have helped his children supplement their home schooling. Because he missed the deadline for applying to open a charter school in Idaho next year, he is putting in his application across the border.

Haag, who has a master’s degree in education administration, is working with like-minded parents in the Spokane Valley. They don’t plan to make the Education Academy of Washington very different from other virtual schools and Haag acknowledges that the school won’t be a good choice for every kid.

He hopes the virtual academy will offer an alternative to rural children who would gain access to a wider variety of classes than local schools can provide.

Instead of being affiliated with any one school district, they will seek enrollment of up to 2,500 from across the state. Haag hopes to plan some in person programs, such as meet-ups for kids who live in one geographic area, and potentially sports teams.

They would open as a middle and high school.

Charter professionals

Officials at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management organization that runs 19 schools in Los Angeles, do not mention their most obvious connection to Seattle when they talk about applying to start building a network in Washington.

Green Dot is a major recipient of dollars from the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation, which would like to see expansion of a successful formula that has given inner-city kids a path to college.

The company has begun moving outside of Los Angeles with a plan for 10 schools in Memphis. In Washington, Green Dot wants to open a middle school in Tacoma in 2015 and to eventually add a high school there, said Megan Quaile, vice president of national expansion.

Quaile said they picked Washington because of its “evolved” charter law.


Contact Donna Blankinship at


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