Evan, a first-grader, danced and bounced around the cafeteria on a recent Wednesday afternoon at First Place school, ignoring a cup of cut apples and bananas that waited for him at a table.
While Acting Executive Director Sheri Day sat down and tied his shoes, he talked enthusiastically about how much he enjoys SpongeBob SquarePants and misses his teacher, Tanya, who was out sick.
Others students at the school are a little more world weary, Day said. She described one student who, wracked by anxiety, all but disappears into her hooded sweatshirt.
First Place, a K-5 elementary school, is celebrating its 25th year educating children experiencing poverty who were not adequately served by Seattle Public Schools. This fall, the school will reopen as First Place Scholars Charter School, Washington’s first charter school. Voters approved the state to fund charter schools in 2012.
While charter schools remain controversial — voters narrowly approved charter schools in 2012, with 50.7 percent in favor — First Place is popular among opponents and advocates of charter schools. Both sides hold up First Place as an ideal example of what charter schools are meant to do: innovate educational approaches, reach underserved students and demonstrate methods that work and can be replicated elsewhere.
Melissa Westbrook, a public education activist and blogger who opposed legalizing charter schools in Washington, has volunteered at First Place. She said it’s a great program but a rarity in charter schools. In an ideal world, the program should have been better funded before charter law passed in Washington.
“If people really thought this was a good thing, why did it take charter law to help them expand?” she said.
Proponents say the program is an example of what charter schools can be in Washington: locally grown.
“It’s a local solution,” said Tania de Sá Campos, Washington’s deputy director of Democrats for Education Reform. “This isn’t someone coming in trying to impose something on the community.”
First Place’s administrators and board of directors have had an eye on charter funding for years and intended to apply to be a charter school the moment it became legal in Washington.
As a charter, the school will receive $720,000 in federal and state funding, bringing its annual budget to
$2.56 million, which will allow the school to double its enrollment to 98 students and keep them in the program longer.
“I’m really excited to have to have us operating at full capacity,” said Dan Seydel II, president of First Place’s board of directors.
First Place was once known as the school for homeless children. It opened 25 years ago to serve students who could not enroll in the Seattle Public Schools because they did not have a permanent address. Now schools are required by federal law to enroll any student and provide transportation to keep them in the same school while they are homeless, no matter where they move.
First Place School has since evolved and now serves children with diverse backgrounds. Some of the school’s families are living in transitional or low-income housing, and some are fleeing domestic violence. Others were living a middle-class life not long ago but fell into poverty after a parent lost a job.
Whatever their circumstances, all of the students have experienced trauma due to extreme poverty.
“This is a place of continuity and gentleness and caring for them,” Day said.
First Place is unique among the eight schools that were selected to become charter schools in Washington. It is the only school that is already operating and serving students. The others are new schools that do not serve such a targeted population.
The other schools include a school opening in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood that gradually will move its students into independent learning and two schools operated by private companies that have opened charter schools in other states. Some schools have stricter discipline and require uniforms; others have higher standards for student achievement.
“They all share in common a priority of underserved students,” said Brianna Dusseault, director of the Washington State Charter Schools Association Leadership Center.
Westbrook said First Place is the only strong program among those selected.
“The other ones, there’s nothing particularly innovative about them,” she said.
First Place provides an array of services outside the classroom. Students can collect new clothes from a long, walk-in closet, which is packed floor to ceiling with full plastic bins of shirts, pants and underwear. The school also partnered with Catholic Community Services to build a $4.5 million apartment building next to the school. Some students live in the apartments.
The students also get a lot of attention from teachers and volunteers. Each class of 14 students has one teacher and one instructional aide. The school also brings on one volunteer mentor for each student.
“It’s all about the one-on-one connection with one adult who cares for that child,” Day said.
That kind of care is expensive. Public schools in Washington spend around $10,000 per student. First Place will spend $23,000 per student next year.
As a charter school, the organization will have to separate its educational work from the support it provides to families. The organization can still fund that work privately but can use its state and federal dollars for education only.
As a charter, First Place can access federal dollars and grant money that was only available to public schools, including funding to build or renovate school buildings.
Soon after the state announced that First Place would be the first charter school to open in Washington, donations started coming in. A publishing company called and offered to donate new books. Until now, the school has cobbled together classroom materials and library books from donations.
“It’s just opening a lot of doors,” Day said. “Everyone wants to help the first charter school.”
The shift could also change the school’s students. As a charter, the school must reopen in the fall.
The teachers will have to reapply for their jobs and compete with other applicants. The students will also have to re-enroll.
If more than 98 students enroll, First Place will hold a lottery to select who attends.
As a public school, anyone can apply, but the school expects that it will continue to serve the same population of students experiencing extreme poverty.
“This is the population that is falling through the cracks in public schools, and I don’t expect that to change,” Day said. “I can’t see a Nordstrom kid showing up here.”