by Ari Robin McKenna
When students at Puget Sound Elementary (PSE) in Tukwila returned to in-person learning at the end of August, the neighborhood surrounding the office-building-turned-elementary-school had one of the highest positive COVID-19 case rates in King County — according to the County’s COVID-19 dashboard at the time. Meanwhile, parents say in-person learning at almost every grade level was over-enrolled, especially 2nd and 3rd grades, which had class sizes of 37, 37, and 39 and 36, 38, and 37, respectively. According to concerned parents who spoke to the Emerald, because this school lacked a cafeteria, because the school’s stated educational model involved having two adults per classroom, and perhaps because of a loose interpretation of State guidance, in at least a couple of cases, for over a month, 40 people gathered their lunches, unmasked, and ate together inside classrooms.
Serving mostly students of color — many from immigrant and refugee households — PSE is one of a fast-growing group of charter schools setting up in southwest King County and Tacoma called Impact Public Schools (IPS). The first of four charter schools stamped for approval by the Washington State Charter School Commission in 2017, PSE was joined in 2019 by Salish Sea Elementary, in Seattle’s Othello neighborhood, and in 2020 by Commencement Bay Elementary in Tacoma. Next school year an already approved Black River Elementary will be opening in Renton. This growing portfolio of non-profit schools is presided over by CEO Jen Wickens, co-founder of IPS.
Perhaps predictably, given the crowded classrooms, PSE has had more than its share of positive COVID-19 cases. By way of comparison, PSE has had more positive COVID-19 cases this school year than any of the 62 elementary schools in SPS. It also should be noted that according to enrollment data, PSE has more students (534) in its converted office building — with a large parking lot and small, outdoor playspace — than any Seattle public elementary school except Genesee Hill (535). School enrollment data is unavailable from Tukwila public elementary schools, so no local comparisons are possible; however, accounting for student population, only nine Seattle elementary schools have a higher percentage of student COVID cases than the two Impact charter schools, PSE and Commencement Bay Elementary.
Called the “weak link” of the national push to reopen schools, lunch time, when masks come off, was identified by many experts as the time in the day when transmission risk is highest. Seattle Public Schools (SPS) set aside designated funds for any of their 103 principals to order lunch tents to allow for outside eating at their school. Highline Public Schools decided in August, when delta variant rates started their rise, to go ahead and order tents for each of their 33 schools. Meanwhile Impact Public Schools, despite a higher rate of community transmission in Tukwila than anywhere in the Seattle or Highline districts, and an average class size (when school started) of 34 at their PSE location — compared to Highline and Seattle, which are both in the low- to mid-twenties — decided it would roll with its two-teacher model and plan to eat lunch inside classrooms. For this and other reasons, parents are upset. The Emerald spoke to some of the many concerned parents from PSE about the school’s approach to their children’s safety.
Sara Woldemichael, whose daughter is in first grade at PSE, explains her reasons for coming to PSE initially: “I’ve uplifted myself and my family and I’ve moved to the suburbs of the Seattle area, but the issue that I find with sending my daughter to a school like [those in Fairwood]: there aren’t many students that look like herself when she attends the school. So I wanted her to be around students not only that looked like her, that were from diverse backgrounds, in smaller classes that can tailor to her educational needs.” Woldemichael was initially impressed at how quickly every student received their laptops during last year’s virtual learning program. Then, at the parent/teacher conference before this school year, she saw the first safety red flag: four to five chairs at each table. She also thought the school leaned too heavily on daily health attestations, saying, “Some parents are being put in the position where if they don’t work, they’re not going to cover rent or they’re not going to be able to eat. They’re just going to send their kids to school.”
The second red flag was the pick-up and drop-off the first week. Woldemichael says, “It was a zoo … teachers yelling, ‘Put on the mask!’ They were so stressed and frantic. [Impact Puget Sound] couldn’t manage drop off and pick up for a week, to the point where the businesses that were around the school called the Tukwila Police Department and complained and said that the school is affecting the community.”
In early October, when Woldemichael asked her daughter how things were going at school, her daughter said the class was too crowded and noisy. At the time there were 32 students in her first grade class, but she reported a new student had just joined the class. Her daughter also told her a table mate had the sniffles and couldn’t keep her mask on. When her daughter ended up catching a cold, Woldemichael decided to keep her out for a while, not trusting the charter school’s safety protocols during the COVID-19 delta variant spike.
When Woldemichael called the teacher to complain, the teacher admitted she and her co-teacher were struggling with students’ behavior, but Woldemichael said she seemed afraid to say more. Woldemichael then escalated the issue and scheduled a meeting with IPS CEO Jen Wickens. As there were parents who had voiced similar complaints, IPS elected to have small meetings of a few parents at a time rather than meeting with parents individually. There were three parents in the meeting Woldemichael attended.
Woldemichael had hoped to walk away assured her child was safe in IPS’s hands. Instead, Wickens began the meeting with an impassioned self-defense. Apparently, there were claims circulating that Wickens was racist — claims Woldemichael had been unaware of. “I was confused,” says Woldemichael. “I came there to tell her about my concern about my kid at the school she’s running, and she’s complaining to me about a racially driven attack against her by an organization that wants to take over her school.” Wickens was likely referring to a Change.org petition posted by “Concerned Parents” (which has since been taken down), but Woldemichael found irony in the situation, because her clear and present safety concerns about her own East African child went largely unanswered by the white CEO.
Senait Ogubmichael, whose daughter was not learning to read at her previous school in Des Moines, thought smaller class sizes and more access to teachers would help her do so. Instead, her daughter felt lost in the packed classroom. “My daughter, she’s not happy. She told me they have a lot of kids inside the class.” When Ogubmichael asked her how many, her daughter responded, “150.” While Ogubmichael initially laughed, she asked around and found out there were, indeed, 37 or 38 students in her daughter’s second grade classroom according to other class parents. Immediately requesting a meeting with administrators, her concerns were not relieved. She says of the IPS administration, “They didn’t respect people; they didn’t give any answers.” Ogubmichael sees this as a missed opportunity because PSE is not activating its parent community to keep children safe. “It’s not only the school or the teacher’s responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”
Yohannes Kidane, whose daughter is a fourth grader and son a third grader at PSE, moved both children out of a public school in the Highline School District after his daughter had a negative experience there. Kidane, who works as a bilingual teacher at a public school in Seattle’s South End, said he’s been impressed with how his employer — SPS — has promoted student safety during the delta variant spike, at least at his school. His children’s school, PSE, not so much. “That class size number is really scary … and classrooms are very small … I don’t feel it’s a safe environment now.” says Kidane. In the elementary school where Kidane works, there are 17 or 18 students in lower grade classes and 23 or 24 in the upper grades. His children’s classes at PSE are well into the thirties. Kidane also bemoans the situation this puts the teachers in.
After students were away from school for more than a year — often in unregulated learning environments engaging for a couple of hours at a time — asking a certified teacher and an aspiring teacher to work with almost double the number of elementary students, but in a standard-sized classroom, is a tall order. “These kids have been away from school for a very long time — almost a year and a half — and within that closure time there are some behavior issues arising. It’s very complicated to manage this on top of your teaching job. This has never happened before in teaching history. The management aspect of it is very, very hard.” Kidane believes the situation PSE puts their educators in, combined with lax safety precautions, will lead to many teachers leaving because, “Nobody’s willing to work in such a risky environment.”
The difference between the public school where Kidane works and PSE, he says, is simple. “We have a union. The teachers at Impact, they may be committed, but they don’t have a union, and the union is another layer of support.” Kidane goes further, and is ready to take his children out and re-enroll them in a non-charter public school if Impact’s approach doesn’t drastically improve. “[CEO Jen Wickens] is playing with the numbers.“ Kidane continued, ”For us [at the public school where he works], every student that walks into our building is a precious, complete person you need to be all around to support. For the CEO of Impact charter schools, it’s another ten, fifteen thousand dollars. For them, every head count for a child is like money, so that’s the saddest part.”
Kibrom Zerai, who has two children at PSE — a daughter in first grade and a son in third grade — thought since public schools had around 18 students per class in lower elementary, PSE would have 14 or 15. Like Woldemichael, he saw the chairs “all cramped together” at the parent/teacher conference before school began and was concerned. He found out from his son’s teacher that the class had 34 students but would be moving to another classroom, presumably with fewer students. Soon after, he found out there were still more than 35 in the class, and they were eating lunch together, inside. “Something needs to be done about that!” Kibrom thought. He also noticed more than one of the most committed teachers he’s gotten to know has left the school in the past two years and one of his son’s teachers recently announced they were leaving. In general, Kibrom says, he’s noticed the administration becoming more defensive and feels parents are “getting the runaround” instead of transparency. Whereas school administrators used to speak about “being in solidarity with the community,” he said, “now you don’t feel that anymore. I feel like that’s lost … you feel like there’s something fishy going on even though you can’t put your hand on it.”
When the Emerald reached out to IPS with these parent concerns, their responses were forthright. When asked about eating lunch indoors and whether they’d considered outdoor lunch, IPS Director of Communications Rowena Yow responded via email, “Yes, students eat lunch in classrooms. Public schools are permitted to offer students in-classroom lunches under current COVID-19 protocols.” When asked about their rationale for doubling up teachers in a class, Yow said, “At Impact, we believe that educational excellence is achieved through tight-knit student-teacher relationships. We maintain a teacher-to-student ratio average of 15:1. In our education model, we have two teachers in each classroom. With two teachers, we are able to provide students with targeted instruction that meets their learning needs. Each classroom is designed to have a lead teacher and a teaching fellow.”
When asked if the high community COVID-19 rates in Tukwila had caused IPS to reconsider their model, Yow responded, “We are not reconsidering our education model.” In late September, IPS expanded their number of classes from 17 to 19, and in response to questions about current class sizes, Yow responded, “Yes, our average class size is 30 students. We do have a handful of classes with more than 32, but no classes have more than 34 students per class.” Students are, according to Yow, still eating lunch in the classroom along with their lead teacher and teaching fellow.
Parents the Emerald interviewed shared a few common concerns. They felt that the converted office building meant to house 534 students in an historically underserved area hit especially hard by this pandemic was insufficient. They also echoed a feeling that teachers seem afraid to communicate freely; a few wondered if something sinister may be underway.
Woldemichael, musing on the situation of many parents she knows, says, “A lot of the families there are first generation immigrants trying to get their children a proper education, and they are afraid to go against the authority.” Although Woldemichael — a College Success Foundation beneficiary and Western Washington Alumnus — did voice her concerns, she doesn’t feel they were addressed, even after speaking with the CEO of Impact Public Schools. “I didn’t leave comfortable that the class sizes were going to change, because she kept saying that the model works best when it’s 32 students. I asked her, ‘What model? Where is this coming from?’ She said, ‘Our model.’” Zerai, also didn’t feel he got sufficient justification that the Impact model is a counterbalance for some of the least safe public school learning and eating situations in King County schools. He mused, “I mean … I don’t understand if it is the education model or the business model.”
Editor’s Note: This article has undergone minor revisions for clarification.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
📸 Featured Image: The front entrance to Impact Public Schools Puget Sound Elementary campus. (Photo: Zion Thomas)
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