The owners grocery store chain Asian Food Center are opening a private, college preparatory school in south Snohomish County. (Contributed rendering)

The owners grocery store chain Asian Food Center are opening a private, college preparatory school in south Snohomish County. (Contributed rendering)

Grocery chain owners plan $26M private school near Mill Creek

Washington Preparatory is envisioned as a non-religious, non-alternative school for grades 6-12.

Today it’s easy to drive past the nondescript vacant lot on Highway 527, between a gym and auto repair shop opposite the Cadman cement mixing plant near the Bothell-Mill Creek border, without batting an eye.

A year from now, the 13.5-acre site will house a private, independent school its founders are pitting against the best in the region.

Washington Preparatory School is set to open this fall with about 60 students in grades 6-9. The founders plan to expand one grade per year through grade 12.

“We believe that establishing a great school is one of the most significant ways we can contribute to our great country and to our communities, both of which have played a very important role in our growth and success over the past 15 years,” founders Stacy Zhong and Lulu Bath replied jointly in an email interview.

Zhong and Bath own The Asian Food Center, a chain of Asian food stores. They have also developed business and residential properties in the Seattle area.

In their initial pursuit of a new school, they “were surprised to learn that independent school options are under-represented as a schooling choice in Snohomish County.”

Snohomish County has 68 private schools, including 13 private high schools, according to privateschoolreview.com. Most of those have religious affiliations, and others are alternative or Montessori schools.

Washington Prep is modeled on independent Seattle institutions such as Lakeside, Bush, and the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mindy Watson worked at Seattle Academy for 20 years before she was recently hired as Washington Prep director.

“It makes a lot of sense to start a school here,” Watson said. “Seattle’s running out of space, and tech start-ups are going to turn north. [Snohomish County] Families don’t have easy access to independent schools.”

Washington Prep will offer an International Baccalaureate diploma program, project-based learning, and a STEEM curriculum — for Science, Technology, Engineering, Entrepreneurism and Math.

Initial tuition is $19,500 a year, rising to $24,000 in year two. Full enrollment is targeted at 500 to 700 students, of which about 120 will be international students housed in on-campus dormitories.

The dorms will be part of a three-story school building that includes science labs, an orchestra room, library and gymnasium.

A consortium of more than 30 investors, led by Zhong and Bath, bought the school land for $11 million. The first building and campus construction are estimated at $15 million. Funding has come from a combination of private sources and banks.

“There are a lot of people who are helping to ensure that the school becomes a success,” the co-founders said. “The process proved challenging at times, from what seemed like simple issues — for instance the land purchase, architectural design, and the permit process — to more complex issues like hiring a head of school and teachers, to accrediting the school and eventually being able to enroll international students.

“It took longer than expected; however, it is very rewarding.”

Watson has hired English, history, and math teachers, and is still searching for a science instructor and Spanish and Mandarin teachers. The school will contract for art instruction and additional STEM support.

“We’re going to build a robotics program,” Watson said. “Robotics is amazing for a lot of reasons.”

Besides teaching technical skills, robotics competitions involve elements of entrepreneurship: designing, experimenting, selling concepts, and succeeding and failing.

“Ambiguity is an important thing to be able to navigate. Students need a safe zone so they can practice, tackle problems and fail and start over again, adapt,” Watson said. “I think an entrepreneurial spirit is one of confidence, that idea of trying new things.”

Like opening a college preparatory school.

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