Washington’s first charter school making improvements

TACOMA — Washington’s first charter school appears to be making the improvements state officials have ordered the struggling school to make, the director of the state Charter School Commission reported Thursday.

First Place Scholars in Seattle has met most of the conditions placed on it by the commission over the past few months.

Commission Executive Director Joshua Halsey said the school still has to finish a report on its special education program, but once that is done, the school’s corrective actions will be complete. The school has been given until April 21 to finish that work.

Other issues raised by the commission about the former private school that re-opened as Washington’s first charter school in September include questions about the school’s financial stability and services to students who are just learning to speak English.

The chair of the school’s board said in an email the school’s new board and school leader have made a “night and day difference” at First Place since November when principal Linda Whitehead took over.

“Dr. Linda Whitehead has brought leadership to the school and coached and led her staff into a well executed team of teachers and program staff,” said School Board President Dawn Mason.

Commissioner Trish Millines Dziko, who recently visited First Place with a small group of commissioners and staff, was optimistic about the school.

“All the things that needed to happen are happening,” she said Thursday.

Dziko, who is executive director of the Technology Access Foundation, which runs a group of education programs in western Washington, said the challenge of going from a private to a public school is bigger than anyone at the school expected.

They are starting to get a handle on the extra reporting and government oversight required and now they just need to keep up, Dziko said.

Halsey indicated earlier this month that First Place could be in danger of sanctions up to losing its charter, but his report Thursday seemed to indicate the school was making good progress toward turning itself around.

At the end of March, the commission sent the school a 15-page “letter of concern” signed by Halsey. The letter detailed a series of problems at the school and set specific requirements to be met by mid-April. That deadline has since been extended to April 21.

Halsey said the commission would discuss First Place’s progress again after April 21 when its correction work is due to be finished.

Catrice Dennis, an instructional aide at First Place, spoke at the meeting and thanked the commissioners for visiting her school. She said Whitehead has been good for the school, whose students have a lot of academic and emotional needs.

“Our kids are learning and I have noticed just a tremendous change,” Dennis said. “Our school is doing it’s very best to come into compliance. We’re also doing our best to service our children’s needs.”

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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