Excitement is in the air at the very first annual Washington State Charter Schools Association conference where hundreds of educators from across the state and the Pacific Northwest have gathered to talk about how to create effective, high-quality charter schools here in this state.
Voters in Washington passed a measure in 2012 that created the state's first charter law, making it the 42nd state in the country to allow charter schools. In January, the state charter schools' commission approved seven charter schools on the heels of the Spokane Public Schools approving its own charter school—bringing the total number of approved charter schools in the state to eight.
Most are set to open in 2015-16, save one—First Place Scholars Charter School here in Seattle, which has operated up until now as a private school for students struggling with poverty and homelessness. That school will re-open in the fall of 2014 as a charter.
The attendees here are split between educators who have worked on opening and operating charter schools in other states and Washington-based educators hoping to open their own charter schools in the coming years.
One panel discussion yesterday, the first day of the two-day conference, focused on how to engage the communities that future charter schools wish to serve. Rosalund Jenkins, a community activist who now works as the senior director of communications for The Parents Union, a membership organization that aims to give parents a voice in education isues, talked about how "direct contact with the community is gritty." There are no shortcuts to building meaningful relationships with the communities in which you want to open a school, she warned, and having that community support is essential to the school's success.
The panel stressed the importance of listening to the community's desires and needs and not coming into the situation with the attitude of being an expert. "Humility is the key," said Jenkins. Others mentioned going door to door to begin interacting with the community and establishing personal connections. Some suggested attending community functions—not necessarily to talk about the school—but to help out and "earn the right" to participate in the community. Most emphasized the importance of listening rather than coming into the community with solutions already at hand.
For the keynote address in the evening, Seattle Seahawk Super Bowl champion Russell Okung took the stage to talk about his own experiences with teachers who helped shape who he is today and the impact of the foundation he created to help support children in single-parent households.
"I'm an advocate for education," said Okung in an interview before his speech. "Not all children are afforded the same opportunities, so I want to help level the playing field." In his speech, Okung expressed his support for charter schools, saying there is a great need for such schools for students who are growing up with adversity, as he did as a child.
Photo credit: Contina Kemp