- Associated Press - Sunday, August 9, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - It’s been a bumpy year since Washington’s first charter school opened in Seattle.

First Place Scholars’ problems were challenging for both the school and the people who run the statewide charter system, and they hope to use the lessons they learned as eight more schools open this fall.

“First Place looked like a slam dunk,” Dave Quall, a member of the statewide Charter School Commission, remembers thinking at the beginning of 2014. As a former lawmaker, he had visited the school and thought it would be a good choice for the state’s first public charter school.

Among its advantages: the K-5 school wasn’t starting from scratch. First Place was converting from a private to a public school so more students could be served by its program targeting homeless kids and others who have had difficult early years.

But soon after school started last fall, members of First Place’s board, its special-education coordinator and its school leader left. As a result, the school could not provide all the special education services required for about two dozen students, kids weren’t being assessed for their English language skills, some staff members were never subjected to criminal background checks, and the school’s finances were questioned.



First Place contacted the Charter School Commission - the organization that granted the charter under the state’s new law - to alert them and ask for help. It took most of the school year to get First Place back on track. In June, the commission voted 4-3 to let First Place keep its charter and continue for another year.

If he had it to do over again, knowing what he knows today, commission Chair Steve Sundquist says he would have postponed the school’s opening by a year.

“The original board wanted very badly to open and believed they would be ready,” he added. “I don’t think we had enough information to question that.”

The eight new schools opening across the state had more time to prepare than First Place. The charter commission is keeping a close eye on six of them and the Spokane School District, as a local charter authorizer, is monitoring the other two.

The commission’s new procedures include summer walk-throughs, more frequent financial reports, more training for school leaders about state regulations and reports, and more intense evaluations of future schools that are converting into charters, like First Place.

“We haven’t created any new rules; we’ve just clarified what the expectations are,” said Joshua Halsey, executive director of the statewide Charter Commission.

The key is making those expectations crystal clear, Halsey said, something he acknowledges did not happen before First Place opened.

Linda Whitehead, who took over as First Place leader in early November, doesn’t have a problem with others using the school’s first year as a learning experience.

“Someone had to be first. I wish we had landed easier. But the good news is we ended the year well,” she said.

Halsey said the commission will continue to watch First Place closely, since the school still has some issues to resolve, including long-term financial stability.

He’s confident the new schools are ready to open and be successful.

“These leaders and organizations are solid. They understand how we’ve dealt with First Place. They understand the bar is high,” Halsey said.

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