Inside one of Seattle’s first charter schools

Aug 20, 2015, 12:52 PM | Updated: Aug 21, 2015, 5:49 am
The Summit Sierra charter school has opened in Seattle’s International District as one of the...
The Summit Sierra charter school has opened in Seattle's International District as one of the first of its kind after Washington approved charter schools. (AP file photo)
(AP file photo)

The first group of charter schools in Washington is opening and they will be under a microscope.

They include the Summit Sierra charter school, which opened Monday in the little Saigon area of Seattle’s International District.

Malia Burns, age 31, is the principal, or executive director, of the school and she explains what her goals are:

“To ensure all of our students, in four years, are able to not only get into a four-year college or university, but that they will have all the options and freedoms available to students going to high-performing schools across the country,” Burns said.

Summit runs a chain of schools that includes seven in California, plus Summit Sierra in Seattle and Summit Olympus in Tacoma. A third school is scheduled to open next year in West Seattle.

All Summit schools get money from the state and are public schools, so they have to take anyone. But if there’s a waiting list, admission is by lottery.

Summit Sierra opened Monday as a ninth grade school and it will add a grade each year until it is a four-year high school. Burns spent the last year recruiting students and meeting parents.

“This is exactly what we sought to do, to have a very diverse student population that is reflective of our community,” Burns said. “This is what I spent all last year doing: working to recruit a student population that is reflective of our city. I’m incredibly proud of the diversity of this school.”

One of those parents is Jacky Spurgeon, who says she enrolled her son, Kenji, because the discipline in the public schools just wasn’t there.

“In public school, that was my main thing, the discipline. My son used to come home and say, ‘Kids are cussing in class and cussing even at the teacher,'” Spurgeon said. “That was a really big thing for him because he was like, ‘Mom, it’s hard to stay focused when you have kids busting out laughing in class and cussing in class and always being disruptive. And although the teachers try their best to handle it, it’s not under control here.'”

“For him to come here, he’s like, ‘Mom, we’re a really solid class. You can hear a pin drop,'” she said.

Malia, the principal, says she uses a discipline model called “restorative justice.”

“There are very clear rules and consequences. We don’t have detention. We follow the guidelines of Washington state so there are suspendable offenses,” Burns said. “But we look to come up with any other possible way to keep our students in school because we know that there is a clear connection between suspension and our students not having the opportunities that they deserve.”

As for academics, Summit also puts every kid in a mentor group with teachers acting as academic coaches. Mentors meet with their group every week.

“They meet with students one-on-one weekly to talk about their goals, to talk about any challenges that they have and they can support each other,” Burns said. “That is one thing that doesn’t fit into the constraints that some traditional public schools have.”

Burns also notes that the school can be more “agile” and adapt to situations when needed, such as changing school times or adding in after-school activities.

Burns is a graduate of Seattle University and went on to Columbia Teachers College in New York. She taught History in both the Bronx and at a charter school in Chicago.

But when Washington passed the charter school law, she decided it was time to come home and follow her dream to set up a school that would close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

And she has a very diverse student body of 120 mostly minority students.

The most controversial aspect of charter schools is that they’re not unionized. Burns said she’s not against unions, but not having one gives her staff more freedom.

“We can make an adjustment to a teacher’s schedule,” Burns said. “Maybe they’re choosing to teach three periods in a row or making an adjustment in terms of what their morning duties are. Maybe greeting students. One of my teachers walks down to Kings Street to pick up students from the light rail.”

“I’m not sure how that would fit into required duties of a teacher,” she said. “My teachers volunteer for these positions. We don’t compensate them for it.”

The school is housed in a pretty basic building; built in a former community center. There are no hallways. The classrooms surround a common area that was the old gym. Every classroom wall is a white board and there are no books. Every child has a Chromebook laptop, and all their reading materials are on the computer.

Burns said that saves quite a bit of money. Which they have to do because under the charter school law, they get the same money per student as any other public school.

Classes run until 3:30 p.m. and her workday runs well into the evening. But that doesn’t bother her.

“It is my dream job, it’s an amazing place to come to work every day,” Burns said. “The teachers are incredible and I’m so excited.”

Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
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Inside one of Seattle’s first charter schools