State gives first charter school last chance to improve

SEATTLE — Washington’s first charter school is being given one last chance to fix its problems.

The state Charter School Commission sent a letter this week to First Place Scholars in Seattle outlining a third problem at the former private school that re-opened as Washington’s first charter school in September.

The new issue involves services to students who are just learning to speak English. The letter from the commission says the school took money from the state to provide special academic help to English language learners but did not do so.

Previously, the commission had questioned the school’s services to students with disabilities and its financial stability.

The letter sent to the school on Tuesday and shared with The Associated Press on Wednesday gave the school 10 days to respond.

First Place Scholars School Board President Dawn Mason said the school is making good progress under new board and staff, including school leader Linda Whitehead, and just needs more time to resolve its issues. She wishes the commission would have given First Place the time it was able to give other charter schools to get ready to meet all the state requirements, Mason said.

“Everyone in Washington state is learning,” Mason said. “But First Place Scholars leadership has not had the time to learn that others are taking.”

Most of the Washington charter schools that will open next fall have had a whole year longer to prepare than First Place had.

If the school cannot not show that it has satisfactorily addressed its problems, the next step could be sanctions up to revoking the state charter, which would effectively close First Place as a public school, commission Executive Director Joshua Halsey said Wednesday.

“I think for us the worst part of this is that we feel for the students and, based upon the evidence that we have, we’ve very concerned about the students’ welfare at the school,” Halsey said. “We don’t have evidence that all students are receiving a high-quality education.”

The commission is worried, as well, that the school may not be able to stay open beyond this year because of its financial problems, he added.

The commission’s next meeting is April 16, a few days after the information is due back from the school, so the next steps may or may not be discussed at that meeting, Halsey said.

The commission put First Place on probation in December, requiring additional monitoring of the school as it worked to correct previous problems. According to the letter sent this week, the school was already aware it had additional issues when the commission was investigating the other problems, but it did not come clean about them.

“First Place’s failure to inform the commission of these documented deficiencies has begun to erode the commission’s confidence in First Place’s capacity to identify, acknowledge and remedy its noncompliance,” the commission wrote in a 15-page letter signed by Halsey.

It goes on to say that First Place’s response to commission inquiries “amplified the commission’s concerns about the school’s performance and legal compliance.”

The commission has asked the state auditor’s office to look into the school’s finances and has helped the school hire people to oversee its services to students with disabilities. This week, the commission offered the school additional help to solve its other academic shortcomings.

The commission is in charge of approving and overseeing most of the state’s charter schools. It has approved seven other charter schools, with six scheduled to open in fall 2015.

Spokane Public Schools, which can authorize charter schools, has approved two more schools scheduled to open in 2015.

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