WA’s first charter school serves children, families of ‘extreme poverty’

Part 54 of 56 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Struggling with drug abuse, domestic violence and physical abuse, Josephine Howell spent five years “on and off homeless.” Many days she didn’t know where she and her children would spend the night. Often, they’d wash up in a McDonald’s rest room because they didn’t have access to showers.

FIRST PLACE: Since the school became a charter school, First Place can enroll more students and expand its services for adults.

First Place, a Seattle nonprofit, helped Howell get on track and helped her kids reach grade level in their schoolwork. Now, she and her kids are “thriving,” and Howell sits on the First Place board and helps others in situations like hers.

Thanks to Washington‘s new charter school law, First Place will be able to expand its program, doubling the size of its school this fall and diverting more funding to its housing, mental health and advocacy programs.

“It’s a complicated organization with a lot of moving parts,” said Sheri Day, acting executive director. “A benefit of becoming a public charter is we will be much more focused and strategic about the work we do and be in a position to help a lot more people in the different ways that we’ve become really skilled at.”

After a charter school bill stalled in committee, Washington voters in 2012 passed a ballot measure allowing charter schools.

Charter school opponents sued the state, hoping to have the law overturned. The court upheld the substance of the law, striking down a provision that didn’t change anything. The state’s supreme court is likely to hear the case.

First Place began 25 years ago in partnership with Seattle Public Schools as a place for students who didn’t have permanent addresses. In 2001, new federal regulations stopped SPS from funding the school. This fall, the school will open as a charter school — publicly funded and still free to keep its mission. All the fundraising proceeds, then, can support First Place’s other programs.

The school serves children struggling with the trauma of poverty, who “may be witnessing domestic violence, or the families could be highly mobile,” Day said.

As a result of that trauma, children at First Place often have mental health issues, like anxiety disorders, or behavioral problems, Day said. They might attend a public school for a week or two before their families move again, and they may be out of school for a few weeks.

They often enter First Place two or three grade levels behind.

“They don’t have the ability to sit in a traditional classroom and be with children of their age, because of their circumstances,” Day said. “It’s an exceptional educational model, but it’s so very worth it because the kids are worth it. These are kids that would fail in traditional settings, and we find them to be brilliant.”

First Place has one teacher for every 14 children, plus instructional aides and individual mentors for students.

“They thrive more with that personal care, because these are kids that you never know on any given day what might have happened the night before,” Day said. “They may come in having problems that we hadn’t seen before, and we have to adjust the teaching plan for the day.”

Each student has a volunteer mentor, and many students stay in touch with their mentor through college and after graduation.

“Even living with their parents, their parents are so stressed they can’t give the kids the individual care that they need,” Day said. “This gives them one adult that’s always available for them. The child comes to know this is an adult they can trust.”

The school serves about 50 students, and next year will be able to serve about 100. The staff hopes to grow: the building has a capacity for 200 students, and board members have discussed obtaining additional buildings as part of a longer-term plan.

More than 50 families are living in First Place’s transitional housing and about 40 families are in long-term supportive housing, which includes case management services to help families become self-sufficient.

FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY: Children at First Place benefit from the school, and from the help the nonprofit provides to their parents.

“The goal is to give them the skills so they don’t need us,” Day said.

Those are skills Howell’s family has gained through First Place’s program.

“First Place was the only stable thing that we had in our lives,” Howell said. “My children would run to get ready in the morning. My daughter would usually hide in the school because she didn’t want to go home. She didn’t know where we were going to go.”

The school helped her children with clothing and hygiene and taught them to advocate for themselves, Howell said. It also taught them confidence.

“For us parents, we see, ‘okay, you’re down at this grade level, you got to get to this level here,’ and we forget to say, ‘See you’re right here, and I’m really proud of you, you did that! Now our next goal is…’” Howell said. “We forgot to do that, and First Place did. They supplied us with confidence.

“But they never did things for us. Even when we’d ask, they’d say, ‘Here’s a book of references,’ or ‘Here’s a company’ we could call. We always had to do it ourselves,” Howell said. “We’d come back and say, ‘Well, we did that,’ and then they would step in as advocates. But I can’t remember a time when they ever did it for us, ever. And sometimes it was real frustrating.

“I remember breaking down and saying, ‘I can’t do all this right now.’ I remember my counselor telling me, ‘Well, who’s gonna do it?’ And I thought, ‘How rude!’ (My counselor said) ‘You’re the parent. You have the power to do it, and they’re depending on you. When it’s all said and done, your face is the face they’re going to look for.’

“I thought even in my messed up state I couldn’t be responsible. But even in my state, instead of snatching the children away as many agencies did, they said, ‘The only way to make sure this child’s life is okay is to make sure this family’s life is okay.’”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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