Some See Green Dot’s Charter High School as a Fresh Alternative. Others Say It Highlights Ongoing Neglect of South Seattle Schools

by Erica C. Barnett

(updated 2/6/18 at 2:10pm)

Depending on whom you talk to, the Rainier Valley Leadership Academy (RVLA) high school, South Seattle’s first proposed charter high school, is either a long-overdue alternative to South End schools that fail to adequately prepare kids for college, or a financial and pedagogical assault on three public high schools that have managed to improve their test scores and graduation rates despite chronic underfunding and decades of neglect.

To Sue Peters, formerly of the Seattle School Board, the RVLA and the nonprofit set to run the 58,000-square-foot high school, California-based Green Dot Schools, are trying to “undermine” neighborhood schools “by draining public resources and students from them.” (Charter schools are privately operated but publicly funded, so every dollar spent on charter schools comes out of funding for Seattle Public Schools.)

For the past year, Peters says, the school board “has heard compelling, eloquent testimony from Rainier Beach Students imploring the district to invest in their school. … Building another school one and a half miles from [Rainier] Beach would direct potential resources away from the school and undermine these efforts.”

But to incoming RVLA principal Arneidra Lloyd, a former public school administrator who attended Franklin High School, the school offers another alternative for parents who want their kids prepared for college but don’t test or track into the public schools’ AP or international baccalaureate (IB) programs, which can’t accommodate every student. (AP classes are high-level classes that can be used for college credit; the IB program is an intense two-year college prep program.)

“I feel like students should have the right to choose where they go to school, just like we have the right to choose what we put in our mouths, where we live, and who we marry,” Lloyd says. “The right to school is just as important as all those other rights.”

The proposal that is inspiring this kind of rhetoric is just one component of a planned development at MLK Way S and S Othello Street, right across from the Othello light rail station, called the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center (SEOC), which aims to reduce economic displacement through a combination of on-site jobs, housing, childcare, and education. But it’s by far the most controversial element of the plan.

Last month, the Seattle school board adopted a resolution opposing Green Dot’s efforts to get a zoning variance from the city of Seattle that would allow it to begin construction later this year on a three-story school—one story higher than the zoning rules for the property allow. “I have difficulties with charter schools when they want the money but not the rules that go with the money,” school board member Leslie Harris said.

On Wednesday, Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesman Bryan Stevens confirmed to the Emerald that Green Dot just told the city they have “decided to modify their design so that they no longer need a design departure,” and will stay within a smaller two-story footprint—preventing what could have been a drawn-out battle over Green Dot’s right to seek exemptions from zoning rules and eliminating an important talking point for charter opponents

If Green Dot had decided to pursue a three-story high school, it might well have prevailed. (SDCI said this week that the nonprofit had the right to at least request the height increase.) Last year, after a process that school board members say excluded school district representatives, SDCI signed off on a request for a three-story Green Dot middle school on Rainier Ave S., just three blocks from Aki Kurose Middle School.

Green Dot doesn’t have much of a record in the Puget Sound region; in addition to the new Green Dot Middle School in South Seattle, Green Dot operates one middle school in Tacoma and just took over a second charter middle school in Kent. Most of their 28 schools are in Tennessee or California, where charter schools were authorized in 2003 and 1992, respectively. (In contrast, Washington State voters just approved charters in 2012, and the initiative is still under legal challenge).

But the nonprofit’s plans to expand into the Seattle area raise questions that have been debated for decades on the national stage: Should privately run charter schools have to play by the same rules as traditional public schools, such as hiring a union workforce? (Green Dot’s Seattle-area schools are not unionized). Does allowing some kids to decamp from traditional public schools to charters doom the kids who are left behind to an inferior education? And should the public subsidize schools run by private companies at a time when the state is struggling to find adequate funding for basic public education?

Peters, the former school board member, argues the new school “will almost certainly negatively impact the existing neighboring schools by draining resources and students from them,” and that kids at charter schools often perform worse than those at traditional neighborhood schools. But national studies of charter schools’ impact on neighborhood schools have been inconclusive, and some research does indicate that urban charter schools can benefit black and Latinx kids living in poverty, in particular, even if the jury is out on whether charter schools, which vary widely (and are regulated differently) from region to region, do a better job of educating kids overall.

Walter Chen, a former Aki Kurose assistant principal who is now principal at Green Dot’s Rainier Valley Leadership Academy middle school, says that because Green Dot’s schools are hyperfocused on college prep, they provide a service that other public schools, even those with good IB programs, just can’t offer. “I really think of Green Dot as a social justice organization—we’re founded on the idea that every child, no matter what neighborhood they live in, deserves access to a high-quality school and a pathway to college,” Chen says.

Homesight director Tony To, whose housing-development nonprofit is spearheading the development of the SEOC, acknowledges Green Dot was “controversial,” but says he thinks the school serves an important purpose. “The program that they’re doing, which is a school-wide college prep program, is one that doesn’t exist in the Seattle school district, and it’s a major concern of students that can’t track into a college prep program,” To says. “And the community supported us on that.”

Green Dot classes are highly structured. Students and teachers learn specific gestures to indicate that they agree or disagree or that someone is doing well. Every student gets a mentor, who will—ideally—stay with that student from middle school to high school and even after graduation. The curriculum includes visits to college campuses, building a resume, and actually applying to schools—every student has to apply to multiple colleges at the end of senior year, even if they don’t end up pursuing higher education. “It’s a college-going culture,” Lloyd says. According to Chen, more than 90 percent of Green Dot’s graduating students in California and Tennessee are admitted to college—and 95 percent of their students “graduate, period.”

Peters, Harris, and other charter school opponents counter that Green Dot’s schools aren’t the only schools that boast a high graduation rate—Rainier Beach, Cleveland, and Franklin all have four-year graduation rates (89.4 percent, 83.3 percent, and 81.7 percent, respectively) that are higher than the district average (77.5 percent), despite having higher student-teacher ratios, more kids who are low-income or in special education classes and, with the exception of Cleveland, higher percentages of attendees with limited English proficiency. And Peters points out that at the one Green Dot school for which records are available, student test scores lag far behind the statewide average—at Destiny Middle School in Tacoma, just over one in four students passed the state’s basic language arts test, and fewer than one in five passed the math exam. Statewide, nearly half of all 7th-grade students passed both tests. (After publication, a consultant for Green Dot contacted me to say that those stats require context, and provided a fact sheet and statement from the Washington Charter Schools Association. “Many Destiny students enter significantly behind grade level, and have significant learning needs,” the fact sheet says. “While Destiny students enter far behind, they are catching up)

Charter schools have been a contentious issue in Seattle for many years. At least twice since voters passed an initiative allowing charters in 2012, the Seattle School board has adopted resolutions opposing charter schools, and public-school activists pack school board meetings to express their opposition to the schools’ expansion in Seattle. Melissa Westbrook, a schools activist who runs a very active blog about the Seattle school system, says she accepts that charters are “legal. But my main point is that they have to do things legally.” In other words: Green Dot’s zoning issue may be resolved, but their opposition isn’t going anywhere.


Erica C. Barnett is a longtime Seattle journalist who covers city politics and policy as a freelance journalist for various print and online publications and at her blog, The C Is for Crank. Previously, she was a co-founder of PubliCola, the local politics blog, a staff writer and news editor at the Stranger, a reporter for Seattle Weekly, and news editor at the Austin Chronicle in Austin, Texas.

Featured image: Rendering of Green Dot Middle School greendot.org

13 thoughts on “Some See Green Dot’s Charter High School as a Fresh Alternative. Others Say It Highlights Ongoing Neglect of South Seattle Schools”

  1. All of my children have gone to Seattle Public Schools,Franklin,Rainier Beach,all African American, and have gone to Washington State located universities.
    The lack of resources and attention to Southend schools is nothing new,it’s the fault of the Seattle School district and their decade practice of ignoring these schools,until gentrification in areas,such as Garfield,do they then pay any attention.
    This is nothing new,and no different than private schools pulling away prime athletes with the promise of better education and a winning team. Give as much attention to academics as you do basketball(which has its benefits too) and you wouldn’t have to worry about kids going elsewhere.

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  2. What neglect? Go look at the SPS website and per student funding us 20-40% higher per student in southend schools than northend. Now Northend schools raise more PTA funds, but southend schools also receive far more funding for the city’s school levy program

    Maybe the neglect is in the home?

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    1. Why don’t you actually step into a South End school? Rainier Beach has been left off the funding levies four successive times. The three South End schools graduate students at one of the highest rates in the city so your criticism of the homes is way off base and is simply more racist garbage. “Let’s not focus on this broken systems.” Also, you seriously can’t believe that with a school district $75 million in the hole, PTSA funds, which are a pittance in the South End compared to the north have no impact on the children’s education. Please go somewhere with this garbage.

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  3. Clever. By running a college prep program, Green Dot gets to avoid all the most challenging students. They get to cherry-pick the high performing students, and none of the special education students, the unmotivated, the teen mothers, the kids with records, the kids who speak limited English as a second language, kids who have survived traumas. Public schools are obligated by law to provide an education to all those students, no matter how challenging. Siphoning the top students and public funds away from SPD will just make that all the more difficult. And of course Green Dot gets to tout their lovely 95% graduation rate because they don’t have to deal with any of the challenging students.

    This is a win for for-profit schools and a loss for public education.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Check your facts. Rainier Valley Leadership Academy Middle School serves:
    o 97% students of color
    o 17% students who qualify for Special Education
    o 75% students on Free/Reduced Lunch
    o 50% of staff identify as non-white

    70% of students entered 6th grade reading below grade level, and 79% were not meeting grade level standard in math. These are numbers that all (far) exceed the SPS average, even when looking exclusively at south end schools such as Mercer and Aki Kurose.

    Like

    1. Check what facts? You must obviously be a Green Dot shill. The demographics of the school are irrelevant to the issues raised by critics of the school and charters as a whole. Why don’t you actually spend time contending with those issues? Unless of course you can’t?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “But national studies of charter schools’ impact on neighborhood schools have been inconclusive, and some research does indicate that urban charter schools can benefit black and Latinx kids living in poverty” who fed you this propoganda? Eliminate all *research* funded by charter proponents and you are left with overwhemingly comprehensive research by,multiple sources that charters that target low income Black and Latino neighborhoods purposely avoid the highest need children – especially those with diasabilities – and continuous weeding out students that fail to meet performance standards. In Texas, California, DC, Wisconsin, and more specifically Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Los Angelea, New Orleans and D.C. these charters have financially undermined the academic resources of these communities by taking public dollars while shirking public responsibikity of educating ALL STUDENTS. You are either woefully uninformed OR a complicit shill for the legalized academic segregation and degradation of the public right to equal academic opportunity. SHAME.

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    1. So then why don’t you provide the data that supports your point? That’s how an actual counter-argument work, not arbitrarily fitting someone into either one of two boxes with no room for nuance. But I guess nuance isn’t something you’re interested in.

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  6. Emerald and others who care about South End students and their education: Please join us in an action to demand equity for our students at the site of the new Green Dot construction at 6020 Rainier Ave. South at 4:00 on February 15th. Exactly like Ms. Peters said, the students will come from our local schools, every 30 students is one teacher the staff will be forced to cut from our buildings. Aki Kurose, Orca K-8, South Shore and the three high schools. Public funds, to private corporations. Rebuild Rainier Beach. Stop accepting separate and unequal, 64 years after Brown v. Board.

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  7. Mr. Lloyd, Any student in Seattle Public School student can take AP or IB classes. South end high schools offer STEM, IB and CTE.
    2010 57% of Graduating Class went on to 2yr or 4yr Colleges or Universities. In fall 2010, 12 students from the 2010 graduating class enrolled at the University of Washington.

    The city’s Department of Construction and Inspection signed off on the Rainier Ave. S. location and, in doing so, they are not in compliance with SMC. Changing the law would require a council vote.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “But to incoming RVLA principal Arneidra Lloyd, a former public school administrator who attended Franklin High School, the school offers another alternative for parents who want their kids prepared for college but don’t test or track into the public schools’ AP or international baccalaureate (IB) programs, which can’t accommodate every student. (AP classes are high-level classes that can be used for college credit; the IB program is an intense two-year college prep program.)”

    I’m sorry that Principal Lloyd is so apparently uninformed on AP or IB in Seattle Schools. There is NO testing to get into any of those classes. There is NO track to get into any of those classes. Are there a lot of students from the Highly Capable service in those classes? Sure, because there is no HC program in high school. It’s the same AP or IB classes offered that ALL students can access.

    And, Roosevelt High has every single sophomore take an AP class and so does Rainier Beach High School.

    “If Green Dot had decided to pursue a three-story high school, it might well have prevailed. (SDCI said this week that the nonprofit had the right to at least request the height increase.) Last year, after a process that school board members say excluded school district representatives, SDCI signed off on a request for a three-story Green Dot middle school on Rainier Ave S., just three blocks from Aki Kurose Middle School.”

    Really? I don’t think so. The City would have been found to have violated its own Code in not one but two places. It would have forced City Council members to declare their thoughts on charter schools. No, what would have happened would be exposing possible collusion on the part of Green Dot with some inside of City Hall to get those variances under the radar. They simply got caught and had to back down. I can tell you that the Washington State Charter Commission, which oversees Green Dot schools, was not happy to hear about this.

    “Does allowing some kids to decamp from traditional public schools to charters doom the kids who are left behind to an inferior education? And should the public subsidize schools run by private companies at a time when the state is struggling to find adequate funding for basic public education?”

    Let’s take the first question. I don’t know if kids who remain (not left behind, but make a choice to remain) will get an “inferior” education but their schools will definitely feel the hit of fewer dollars. Go ask Tacoma Public Schools who also feel it from a Green Dot middle school.

    Should the public subsidize these schools? My preference would have been to shore up the existing system – the one underfunded for decades – before we started yet another new system that has not shown its promise in academics or innovation overall.

    “I really think of Green Dot as a social justice organization—we’re founded on the idea that every child, no matter what neighborhood they live in, deserves access to a high-quality school and a pathway to college,” Chen says.”

    And SPS doesn’t? Didn’t Chen used to work for SPS?

    “According to Chen, more than 90 percent of Green Dot’s graduating students in California and Tennessee are admitted to college—and 95 percent of their students “graduate, period.”

    Mr. Chen, but the real question is how many in the original freshman class finished in the senior class? Meaning, what was the attrition? I”ll note that charter schools don’t have to keep taking on kids thru the year even if they lose students. Easier to mold your population when you control who gets in and stays in.

    I do stand by my statement; charter schools are legal (for now – still waiting for the ruling on the current law by the WA Supreme court) but they need to play by the rules that ALL public schools have to.

    Melissa Westbrook
    Seattle Schools Community Forum blog

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