By Airik Myers, The Seattle Medium
During the 2020-21 school year, charter schools in Washington State saw a 35 percent increase in enrollment, as opposed to the statewide decrease of 3% to public schools. According to Marcus Haden, Community Engagement and Policy & Advocacy Manager for the Washington State Charter Association, many of the charter schools in the Seattle area “doubled their enrollment,” which created both and opportunity and a dilemma.
Due to their size and ability to actively engage with their families, charter schools are uniquely positioned to adapt to changing environments quickly to better support their students during times of need. This could not have been more evident than last year when COVID hit. Many charter schools were quickly able to adopt a remote learning model, as the number of COVID cases in the area were on the rise.
Baionne Coleman, President and CEO of Rainier Valley Leadership Academy (RVLA) — a charter school in South Seattle, says that it was all hands-on deck to make sure their students would not fall by the wayside during the pandemic. As Coleman describes some of the obstacles and how she and her staff dealt with them, it becomes obvious that what some might consider to be over and above are simply par for the course as it relates to the connection and dedication that she and her staff have with their students and families.
“Every single person on our team from the custodian to myself, as the CEO and principal, was driving laptops out to families to make sure that they had them,” said Coleman. [We were] driving food baskets to family to make sure that they had what they needed during that time. We did what we needed to do to make sure that our scholars could still learn.”
While many schools were resourceful and showed academic success, the pandemic further exposed the disproportionate funding model that left many charter schools scrambling to secure the necessary resources to fully support online learning.
“All of our schools really leapt into the remote model because a lot of them use remote learning, not as their everyday thing, but as a part of the training they typically do with their students,” says Harden. “By nature, charter schools are innovative models and [are] able to be flexible. But we are not eligible for though our local levies, which can typically range from anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 per student.”
“So, then you think about what that means for a school environment, that’s two more classroom teachers, that’s a counselor, it’s activities, it’s foreign language, it’s all of those things,” added Harden.
Unfortunately, during the last legislative session, the State Legislature failed to pass equal and adequate funding for charter schools, which resulted in the continued funding issues for many charter schools across the state.
“That’s part of what we were pushing for in the legislative short bill, to push for that level of the levy equalization for all [charter] schools to be treated similarly to public schools.”
State Rep. Debra Entenman (D-47th Dist.) says that the failure for the Legislature to act on equitable funding charter schools is based on perceptions of charter schools that have went unchecked since they were first introduced in the state, which makes it difficult for the Legislature as a whole to approve funding measures for them.
“Some people are opposed because they think that teachers cannot unionize, which is incorrect,” says Entenman. “Others think that the charter schools will remove funding and push money into faith-based schools. I was initially against charter schools, but over time I have learned to accept their positives. Charter schools have a place in our state. Black and African American families have found success in the charter school system.”
“I think the problems in the past Legislative sessions have centered around not having open conversations, and I am hoping that in the next legislative session we can have open conversations,” continued Entenman. “People fear what they don’t understand, and people with money have convinced others that charter schools are bad for the funding of public schools as well as for the teachers. This next legislative session, I hope that I will be able to focus on Charter schools, if that is what the community wants me to do.”
With the increase in enrollment, the need for more funding and supplies became more apparent. Some schools didn’t have enough laptops for students, while others had to deal with the lack of stable internet connections for some students.
The collaboration of the community to rally around the school and be active participants was also key in sustaining Rainier Valley Leadership Academy’s success during the pandemic, Coleman stated. Another way that schools remained connected were through family activities such as paint and sips, where the school would send out drinks and paint to families for them to do together over Zoom. This closeness found in the charter school system was something a lot of parents had not experienced in other academic environments, which resulted in an increase in students last year.
Natalie Hester, one of the early adopters of the charter school system, sent her daughter to one in 2015. Hester, who admittedly had very little knowledge of charter schools at the time, had a negative experience at her local public school, and decided the she had nothing to lose by giving charter schools a try.
Hester was impressed with the project-based learning model that the school offered, where they take one project and build upon it in different subjects like math, history and language arts. While at the same time collaborating with other students.
“I talked to the teacher about the principal who was enrolling students. And I was like, what are you, what can the school do to help prepare her [to go to college]?” said Hester. [Their response to me was] if she decides not to go that’s up to her, but she’ll be ready and prepared in case she does.”
Having only 166 students, teachers at RVLA were able to communicate both frequently and effectively throughout the year. In some cases, the communication between students and teachers reached up to 2,000 messages a week. Because of this, when school districts statewide struggled to account for 10-25% of the most vulnerable students, Washington’s charter schools saw 95% daily attendance and engagement rates, according to Hester.
With how Charter Schools handled adversity, many advocates feel as though they have proven that they are deserving of increased funding. Harden suggests that both government and local community support has been growing, but there is still more to be done. With an extension to the charter window in addition to levy funding the Charter School Association states that, “there’s still opportunity for 16 more unique [charter school] designs across the state.” In the local community, with new people coming into office and more champions of the community, the future of charter school success relies on them. Charter schools are going to have to be for the community and created by the community.
This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Seattle Medium through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.