School Choice & Charters

Washington State’s First Charter School Wins Reprieve

By Tiara Beatty — June 19, 2015 2 min read
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The Washington State Charter School Commission has decided to allow the state’s first charter school to remain open for another year after a troubled debut in which concerns about the school’s ability to operate a sound academic program mounted.

On June 15, First Place Scholars, had to submit documented proof of significant progress with their students in order to remain open. The commissioners deliberated in Seattle and settled on a 4-3 vote in favor of keeping the charter school open, but it will remain on probation for 12 months.

First Place Scholars, opened last fall in Seattle. The school focuses on providing homeless children with a better education and access to resources to address emotional, physical or environmental challenges they face. The school emphasizes STEM and the arts.

There have been concerns for months that the school has not been fulfilling its contractual obligations to meet certain performance expectations. The commission gave the charter four formal warnings and several extensions to improve its quality of education before they would deem it unfit for students. On probation since December, the last deadline for the school to meet its improvement targets was supposed to be in April. However, the commissioners gave the school another extension until the end of the school year.

First Place Scholars had to meet nine conditions in order to remain open another year. The conditions surrounded English-language learners, special education, formative assessments to track student data, ways to monitor student growth, and the school’s financial plan.

In addition, the charter school has had a number of other challenges throughout its first year. First Place Scholars has had a rotating cast of leaders. The school leader, board leader and five board members left after or around the first six months. The new interim school leader is Dr. Linda Whitehead, a former district superintendent.

Furthermore, the charter school is still seeking a special education teacher and a special education substitute teacher. In addition, the school’s enrollment is affecting the overall finances of the school as the charter has lost students from the original 96 students who enrolled. First Place has to pay the money back to the state of Washington.

In an effort to fix the school’s mistakes, a corrective action plan was submitted to the state commissioners in December. They rejected all but one component of the charter school’s corrective action plan calling it “untimely and deficient.”

In the spring commissioner newsletter, Commissioner Cindi Williams wrote a letter explaining the reasons for the complications with First Place Scholars. “The Charter Commission is facing its first big regulatory decision and, as a Commissioner, I find myself between a rock and a very hard place...In the end, there is no easy answer, but the Commission will be forced to make a decision based on the evidence presented as to whether First Place is meeting, or has a viable plan to meet, its obligations under the charter it signed a year ago.”

Eight more charter schools are planning to open this fall in cities such as Tacoma and Spokane.

Photo credit: Twins Deborah, left, and Petros Kahssay, 8, walk through a hallway at First Place Scholars Charter School in Seattle last year.--Ted S. Warren)/AP-File.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.