The Washington State Charter School Commission has voted narrowly to allow First Place Scholars — a K-5 school that largely serves homeless and low-income students — to keep its charter and continue receiving public funds.
The 4-3 vote comes after months of back-and-forth between administrators and the commission over concern that First Place has not been meeting the requirements of its state contract. As the first charter school in Washington, First Place has been fighting an uphill battle to comply with its new regulations after more than 25 years of operating as a private school (“Loving Education,” RC, June 10).
“We still have our school,” School Leader Linda Whitehead said. “We are all in this to make First Place an excellent charter school, and we will.”
But the school’s status remains on shaky ground. It now faces a year-long probationary period with sanctions, and the commission may still decide to revoke its charter during that time.
On June 3, the commission issued a letter requiring First Place to provide certain documents by June 15 to show the progress it had made in addressing the latest concerns, which fall into the categories of special education, services for English language learners (ELL), core education and finances.
At a June 18 meeting, commission Executive Director Joshua Halsey announced that First Place had met the requirements for ELL and core education, to bouts of applause. But based on a staff analysis, the commission found that the school only partially met requirements for special education and finances, pointing to ongoing questions and discrepancies in the documents.
Halsey framed the commission’s discussion, which lasted more than six hours and eventually went into a closed-door executive session, as a balancing act between upholding regulations and showing mercy. Commissioners acknowledged the tremendous strides First Place has made, repeatedly calling today’s version of the school “First Place 3.0.” After it became a charter, First Place underwent a near-complete turnover in leadership that community members say has been transformational.
“We absolutely believe that you are on track for improvement, and that is why I think we bet on, and we voted on, hope,” said commission Chairman Steve Sundquist.
But commissioners also expressed concern over setting a precedent of flexible regulation as more charter schools emerge; the commission’s June 3 letter stated that the charter would likely be revoked if requirements were not met.
“We’ve put these conditions out there many times, and last time, we said this was the last time,” said Commissioner Larry Wright, who voted to revoke the charter.
Several commissioners said their primary concern is the financial viability of First Place. Because the school enrolled a smaller number of students than estimated, it will likely have to reimburse the state about $140,000 for apportionment dollars.
The school’s ability to reassure the commission may ultimately hinge on its ability to fundraise, which administrators say has suffered between the board’s focus on resolving noncompliance issues, negative media attention and a public perception that the school no longer needs donations after its transition to a charter. Charter schools are privately operated schools that receive state funds, but the money is not nearly enough to maintain operations.
“The finances to me are still a difficult question,” Wright said. “If those kids get to school and then have to leave, we’ve done more harm than good.”
Whitehead said administrators aim to raise the money for state reimbursement before the start of the next school year. As part of its sanctions, the school will be required to submit monthly financial reports and a balanced 2015/16 budget, along with progress reports showing it is meeting other requirements. The commission will vote each month on the financial viability of the school.
“We will go back to the generous [people of] Seattle and ask them not to step away from this,” Board President Dawn Mason said.
Parents and teachers asked the commission to view the school through a broad lens, saying that though First Place has work to do, it has never stopped providing quality education and a safe sanctuary for kids who have undergone significant trauma.
Christina Damas is a parent of two children with autism spectrum disorder who became homeless during the recession. She was also the first parent to come forth and issue a complaint about First Place’s deficiencies in special education.
“I would be the first to be critical in that place because I want what’s best for my children,” Damas said. “I feel that place is magical and could grow into something really, really special if given the chance. I feel the seed has been planted and the possibilities there are endless. The progress I’ve seen with my son this year is nothing less than spiritual.”