by Michelle Buetow
Washington state legislature last week held hearings on the fourth attempt to bring charter schools to our state. As expected, the proposed legislation is proving sharply divisive within the K12 education community.
I am wary of any proposal that further fractures a state population of legislators and voters who have yet to join together on the most elementary support of public schools: adequate and consistent funding. We have more urgent needs than a brawl over charters. And thanks to a remarkable proposal on the table right here in Seattle, we may be able to remove charters from the exhausting roster of state education knockout fights, while at the same time meeting the vital need to provide each child in our city with a solid education.
The Seattle Public Schools’ energizing Creative Approach School initiative has been quietly nurtured over the past year. Introduced by Seattle teacher’s union leadership, bargained by principals who head SPS Alternative Schools, and embraced by District central staff, the proposal offers the promise of strong school autonomy, with the counterbalance of a mandate to show student achievement.
In short, Creative Approach Schools offer many of the ideas that draw education reformers to charters, without bringing the additional administrative and cost overhead, perceived lack of accountability, often-resegregative enrollment practices, and public school funding diversions that trouble charter opponents. It also casts the Seattle Education Association (teacher’s union) as a problem solver, not a problem, in student success. This is a welcome development, as an anti-labor sentiment has fractured civic goodwill other states (Wisconsin) and has demoralized many top-performing teachers in our own city.
Creative Approach Schools offer an idealistic – and simultaneously pragmatic – counterbalance to the District’s multi-year push to provide a floor on grade-level student achievement via the standardization of neighborhood school offerings. The proposal recognizes the strong desire of a segment of Seattle’s community to allow for “choice” in selecting a school with a non-cookie-cutter approach to programming. Parents look for “choice” for four primary reasons,all potentially addressed by Creative Approach Schools:
- A tool to address the opportunity (achievement) gap
- Strong family interest in specialized programming (The Arts, exploratory learning, etc.)
- Significant student learning disabilities or social needs
- The perception that a neighborhood school is performing poorly or does not meet particular family values
Note that the MOU intentionally does not limit the establishment of Creative Approach Schools to communities comprised primarily of so-called “at-risk” students. It does, however, mandate that any community seeking the freedoms of a Creative Approach School also focus on the needs of disadvantaged students. My hope is that with Creative Approach schools in the spotlight, District and public tracking of these schools’ performance would prevent the tawdry practice, found at some charter and traditional public schools alike, of “counseling out” students with special learning needs to inflate school achievement scores.
The MOU allows for any existing school to apply for Creative Approach status, though a school could not change its enrollment identity (neighborhood/option/alternative) in the process. (The certain-to-be-discussed difference between Creative Approach Schools and Seattle’s existing Alternative Schools will be the subject of a separate blog post.)
Although the definition of Creative Approach Schools is broad, the schools’ rewards – and requirements – are specific.
To obtain Creative Approach School status, the MOU envisions an existing school represented by staff, families and community submitting a rigorous written application and school program description to a joint District/SEA approval committee. The SPS superintendent would provide the final approval. Cross-constituency collaboration within a building would be necessary from the get-go, with a supermajority (80 percent) of SEA-represented staff, the school principal, and strong participation of parents and community all necessary to initiate and to maintain Creative Approach status.
This emphasis on authentic grassroots teamwork within a school community provides a better solution than well-meaning “Parent Trigger” laws in states such as California, in which communities pressing for program changes in their school sometimes inadvertently lose their voices to private or non-profit charter organizations focused on their own blueprints for student success.
The idea that a synchronized and strong school community provides the best chance for individual student success is everywhere in this proposal.
- School staff would be mandated to work in conjunction with parents and community partners to design the school program, to monitor the program and ultimately to govern the school. This would be a significant, but necessary, increase in responsibility and workload for most school staffs and parents alike. Many of Seattle’s existing Alternative Schools embrace the idea of staff/community co-governance through a Site Council, though the power of those committees has been diminished significantly in recent years by District centralization initiatives. In buildings with a traditional administration + PTSA structure…or with no PTSA at all…the shift to true community partnership could be an enormous shift in perspective.
- The draft MOU has the District promising that a Creative Approach School principal valued by the community would not be replaced for 3 years. (Principal “churn” during the term of Superintendent Dr. Goodloe-Johnson had significant negative effects on multiple school communities.)
- Teacher participation in a school converting to Creative Approach School status would be voluntary, and existing teachers could ask for SEA-bargained procedures to leave a school that was no longer a good fit. Teachers hired into Creative Approach Schools would be asked to sign an employment contract specific to the school.
- Schools would further strengthen site-based staffing needs by being exempt from mandatory displaced teacher assignments…negating the potential for the “lemon car” teachers that the movie “Waiting for Superman” publicized to great effect in its pro-charter message. (Side note: Despite popular belief to the contrary, in the last 2 years SPS has made significant strides in removing from its ranks the lowest-performing teachers unable or unwilling to strengthen their skills.)
The MOU offers
- An “opt out” of District assessments, as long as the schools adopt some form of benchmark and progress monitoring that shows student growth (But state and federal assessments would still be mandatory.)
- Choice on all instructional materials
- Latitude in developing program schedule, school day schedule and school year schedule.
- Academics focused on specific themes or disciplines
- Private partnerships within the school, such as for wraparound services, arts enhancement, technology, etc.
The Creative Approach Schools initiative is intended to offer benefits quickly – as early as the next academic year. The timeline is a counterpoint to the criticism that this District is unable or unwilling to move quickly to offer solutions to children impacted by the opportunity gap or to parents unhappy with their local school offering.
This is not a full-fledged program yet. Teachers will be looking at the MOU again this week, after asking Seattle Education Association leadership last month for more time to review and potentially to amend the proposal. (As community members increasingly ask the District to keep them informed of proposed policies affecting SPS students, so too are teachers looking for increased communication from its union leadership.) The proposal will not move forward without signoff by the teacher corps.
The still-evolving application and approval process is nascent at best, and will need revision, perhaps significantly so, in coming years. Principals are getting an overview of the proposal this week, and will need to add their perspective to the proposal. SPS administrative staff will make a presentation to the Seattle School Board as early as next week. The Board will need to approve the final MOU. Although strong reporting of program results to the public has been a weakness of the District in past years, the ultimate success of Creative Approach Schools will necessarily rest in annual reviews of each school’s program. Program management skills downtown and within individual schools will need sharpening.
Each “next step” is achievable. In writing this piece, I hope to add momentum to moving forward quickly. As a community advocate deeply immersed in the reality – and the promise – of public education in Seattle, I see this proposal as a treasure from the District - a recognition and response to civic hopes, family requests, and – most importantly – student needs. It is education reform that is collaborative and constructive, not just clamorous. I hope that school communities, education advocates and politicians throughout the city find it as refreshing, and exciting, as I do. I hope state legislators see our District poised to take a leadership position on providing an alternative way forward in the current Great Charter Debate, version 4.0.