Published Online: September 2, 2014

Washington's first charter school prepares to open

SEATTLE (AP) — In some ways, the first day of school will be nothing new at First Place in Seattle.

Kids will gather in the same beautiful old building. Some of the same teachers will be standing at classroom doors to welcome students. And the children will come from families that need extra help finding housing, food, health care and jobs.

First Place School has taught kids and helped their struggling families for the past 25 years. But on Wednesday, the former private school now called First Place Scholars will open its doors as Washington's first public charter school.

The school will get an infusion of cash from the state budget. The administration will continue to find its own way academically, but now First Place must follow state and federal laws that govern public schools, including filing government reports and preparing students to take statewide academic tests.

First Place must show that it can help low income kids do as well or better academically than they would have at their neighborhood schools. Administrators will be judged on their ability to meet the requirements of state and federal education laws.

The school will have five years to prove itself, but its charter can be revoked at any time.

The Washington State Charter School Commission has been working closely with First Place to make sure they are set up to succeed, and the school has passed every test, said Joshua Halsey, executive director.

"We want to make sure that the school can be successful," Halsey said. "One way to do that is to be explicit about how the school will be held accountable."

Halsey and others are hopeful about First Place's potential because of its past successes and the careful process the commission used to approve the state's first charter schools, after voters endorsed the idea in 2012.

First Place will be alone under the microscope this year, but another group of schools will open in fall 2015.

The school also is getting support from its volunteer board and the new nonprofit charter support group, the Washington State Charter Schools Association.

Marta Reyes Newberry, executive director of the association, said her group is working to help First Place and the charter schools that come after.

"We do whatever we can to remove obstacles that they may face," Newberry said.

Among the obstacles at First Place: strengthening its special education program, adding more community groups to its support network, supplementing classroom work with online learning and learning how to navigate the world of public schools.

School administrators plan to keep doing what they've been doing for 25 years, but multiply the effect by helping a larger number of children and their families. The goal is to double the size of the school to nearly 100 students this school year.

"We've succeeded for 25 years. We're just building on a foundation that's already here," said Sheri Day, acting executive director.

The new school — like the old one — will feature very small classes with lots of volunteers and staff. That will mean three to four adults in every classroom of 14 kids.

Becoming a charter school and gaining access to public dollars will allow the school to expand its reach. The extra money will enable the school to spend more on support services since state money will mostly cover the academic program and free up some donated dollars.

Wraparound services for every family will range from help finding housing, food, jobs, clothing, education and other needs. Every family is assigned a case manager.

In addition to student learning, the school is also committed to adult education.

Children get a free breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack.

Kyle Hutchinson, who taught second and third grades last school year, said he was attracted to the school because of the way it tried to meet all the needs of the children and their families.

"I read the mission statement and I was hooked," Hutchinson said near the end of the previous school year.


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