Washington News

September 16, 2013

Spokane Public Schools taking proposals as cutoff nears

by Jody Lawrence-Turner

Seven years of foreign language. Extra math and science. Nine-hour school days and an extended school year. These are the makings of a charter school planned for Spokane next year.

Brenda McDonald plans to submit an application to Spokane Public Schools to start Pride Prep, a free college preparatory school for sixth- through 12th-graders considered to be at risk for slipping in school.

“Our goal is not only for each student to go to a four-year college but for them to graduate,” McDonald said.

McDonald spent 20 years in education, most recently as principal of Garry Middle School in Spokane’s poorest ZIP code. Now she is part of a three-member Washington State Charter School Leadership team.

She and her colleagues are working to develop charter schools in three regions in Washington: Spokane, Tacoma and South King County.

Hers is one of what will likely be several proposals for a charter school that will operate within Spokane Public Schools’ boundary. Such schools are independent public schools that use nontraditional and innovative teaching methods. They are held accountable for improved student achievement, receive taxpayer funding and are governed by their own boards.

Applications to the district are due by Nov. 22, then district officials have until Feb. 24 to accept or decline the proposals.

McDonald’s team is part of the Washington State Charter Schools Association – a nonprofit created to support charter schools. Chris Korsmo, chairwoman of the group, said there has been a lot of interest from people wanting to start charter schools statewide.

“We are helping people who are interested by working with applications, proposals and how to pick a good board of directors,” she said.

Pride Prep would use a four-“T” philosophy: time, technology, targets and talent.

The school day would last from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m and the school year would stretch two extra weeks.

Teaching would be done in small groups and one-on-one, with students working at their own pace using a tablet computer. Some of the curriculum would be taught using the handheld technology.

Traditional courses, including English, math, social studies, science and language in a block-type schedule, would be taught in longer sections. For example, students would spend two hours in math and two and a half hours in language arts, although they wouldn’t spend more than 20 or 30 minutes on any one activity.

As an example, “Some students would be working online, some students would be working in a group with a teacher, a few students working on a math exercise,” McDonald said.

The third year of school there would be an additional course in science, technology, engineering or math.

“We will create an elective program, but we won’t design that until students are in the building because we want to focus it on what the kids are interested in,” McDonald said. “For example, if we have a lot of kids interested in music then that’s what we’d offer. If we had a lot of kids interested in music and art, then we’d offer those electives.”

Leadership skills as well as social and emotional skills would be taught at the school, she said.

A location for the school has not been selected, but McDonald knows she wants it to be somewhere in the downtown University District. A couple places she has in mind are the vacant Comp USA store or the Jensen-Byrd building on the Riverpoint campus, she said.

During the first year, Pride Prep would enroll 200 students – 100 sixth-graders and 100 seventh-graders.

Each year 100 more would be added until the school reached capacity, with 100 students in each grade from sixth through 12th.

Students would be selected by a lottery. If there are more than 100 interested, a waiting list would be created.

Money to run the school would come from taxpayers, but it would require startup funding of about $2 million, McDonald said. That money would come from fundraising and would pay for eight to 10 staff, supplies, desks and chairs, curriculum and work that needed to be done to a building before moving in.

“As I’ve been out in the community, it’s been a really positive response,” McDonald said. “My goal is that we are a super-high-quality charter school and we want to get it right from day one.”

Spokane Public Schools expects to receive several applications for charters, but it’s not clear how many or where they will come from, said Steven Gering, chief academic officer.

“Definitely people pick up the phone (and call us),” he said. The district won’t know for sure how many will apply until the Nov. 22 deadline.

Korsmo, of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said she has heard from people interested in putting charter schools in Battle Ground, Tacoma, Seattle and Yakima, in addition to Spokane.

She, too, expects many applications for charter schools in Spokane. “Spokane will be very attractive to many people who want to start charter schools where they are viewed as another option, not an enemy,” she said.

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