On a recent sunny afternoon, a work party was underway at a low-slung building just south of Seattle that will soon become Rainier Prep, a charter middle school.
School leader Maggie O’Sullivan bounced from room to room, directing traffic. As one large family planted brightly colored dahlias and lobelias beneath what would soon become the school's sign, a father who had just shown up balancing a case of bottled water on one shoulder was directed to the basement, where a potluck would begin in a couple hours.
"Thanks so much for bringing it!" O'Sullivan chirped with the cheer of the elementary school principal she was for eight years in Federal Way before founding Rainier Prep.
Last year, Washington state’s first-ever charter school opened its doors. This fall, eight more charter schools open across the state, each promising to provide disadvantaged students unique educational opportunities.
A trio of incoming students were led to O'Sullivan for a tour of the building, which, until recently, was used by the next-door Vietnamese Catholic congregation. The school sits within the Highline School District on a slice of unincorporated King County wedged between South Park, White Center, Tukwila and the Duwamish River.
O’Sullivan said parents and students insisted on helping spruce up this old school building before the first day of classes. She said that community spirit is what’s going to make Rainier Prep a different kind of middle school.
The school will be small to begin with 160 students in fifth and sixth grades. "We’ll greet them at the bus, making sure to look each student in the eye – really welcome them to our school," O'Sullivan said.
Students will start each day with the same group of peers, O'Sullivan said, and the same adviser who monitors their progress and supports them throughout their time at Rainier Prep. "We provide a really close-knit environment where we can know each student really well," O'Sullivan said.
The school will have a rigorous college prep curriculum, she said, with a school day two hours longer than most local public middle schools.
Charter schools are able to take approaches like that because they aren’t bound by the same district regulations and union contracts as typical public schools. Charters are publicly funded, but privately run – so each charter school is effectively its own school district.
Longer school days are also the plan at Excel Public Charter School in Kent, where founder Adel Sefrioui was showing a group of parents and grandparents around the construction zone at the church property that’s being transformed into his new middle school. "If you see any big blobs, you might not want to step on them, because it’s the stuff they’re taping the wall up with," Sefrioui warned.
A recent University of Washington law school graduate, Sefrioui is an alumnus of Teach for America, and got his start in education teaching at a Chicago charter school. Like O'Sullivan, he has never run a charter before, but is basing the school on several charter programs he considers successful, including the Noble Network Charter Schools and KIPP.
Sefrioui waved toward a space that will become one of the school's two science labs. "Really big rooms, high ceilings, as you can see."
Excel students will spend a lot of time in these labs. The school puts an emphasis on science – nearly two hours each day. There will be extra-long classes in English and math, too – all made possible by nine-hour school days. The school year at Excel will also be nearly three weeks longer than other public middle schools in the area.
Over the school year, that adds up to an extra month of school. Sefrioui says that extra time allows teachers to build lesson plans with each other during one of their two planning periods.
"A lot of schools have teachers’ lounges where you have your microwave and your fridge and your coffee machine. Our teacher lounge also acts as a teacher workspace, which was really important to us, and that we’ve seen at a lot of high-performing schools."
Like the charter schools it’s modeled after, Excel has strict rules about student achievement. If you get below a C in a class, get ready for mandatory summer school. A student who fails a core subject might have to repeat that year of school.
To prevent students from falling behind, families are expected to check in with the school regularly to track their children’s progress.
Family involvement is also a major component at the charter high school opening in a corner of Seattle’s International District populated mostly by small factories and Asian produce markets. At Summit Sierra, parents are asked to volunteer 30 hours a year at the school.
Summit Sierra is a branch of Summit Public Schools, an established chain of charters based in California.
"Our results are incredible," said Jen Wickens, who oversees Summit's operations in Washington state, including another branch opening in Tacoma this fall, on a recent tour of Summit Sierra. "One hundred percent of our kids are prepared for four-year colleges, and 99 percent are accepted into at least one four-year college."
Wickens said 100 ninth-graders starting at Summit Sierra will each have personalized learning plans, and can work on their own goals, at their own pace.
In contrast to most Seattle public high schools, where students who want to use computers have to go the library or computer lab, Summit students are each assigned their own laptop to access the school’s online learning platform from school or home.
Wickens says one-quarter of students’ time will be spent outside of the classroom, at internships, college visits, and expeditions in subjects like arts and digital media.
"Instead of having an elective at the end of a school day that runs all year, our students get to deeply immerse themselves in an area of passion for two weeks, and have a very holistic experience with that area of interest or passion," Wickens said.
While students are away, Wickens said, teachers will train to expand their professional skills.
These new charter schools make big promises. So did the state’s first charter school, First Place Scholars, which opened in Seattle last fall. But mismanagement at that school has resulted in the ongoing threat of possible closure by the state.
The charters opening this fall asked for an additional year before they opened. Wickens said that will help Summit achieve its goals.
"We’re very grateful that we had a full year of planning to open these two schools,” Wickens said. “We’ve done this work before. We have seven schools in the Bay Area that are all very successful."
After years of rejecting charter schools in this state, Washington voters narrowly approved legalizing privately run, publicly funded schools in 2012.
Now it’s up to these three schools here in the Seattle area, and six more across the state, to show that charter schools can live up to their promises.