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caption: Senait Ogubamichael embraces her 8-year-old daughter Hermon Yonas, 2nd-grade student at Impact Puget Sound Elementary school, on Monday, November 29, 2021, in Burien.
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Senait Ogubamichael embraces her 8-year-old daughter Hermon Yonas, 2nd-grade student at Impact Puget Sound Elementary school, on Monday, November 29, 2021, in Burien.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

A charter school chain promised a world-class education. Instead they billed the state and let kids ‘sit there quietly’

This is the first story in Broken Promises, an investigative series about Impact Public Schools, the largest charter school chain in Washington state.

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or Senait Ogubamichael, an Eritrean refugee, it was the American dream: Her daughter would get a stellar education and grow up to pursue any kind of career.

“Whatever she like,” Ogubamichael said. “If she like music, if she like being a doctor.”

Ogubamichael was drawn to Puget Sound Elementary, a charter school in Tukwila, because of its promise of instruction tailored to each student. Puget Sound is part of Impact Public Schools, the largest charter school chain in Washington state.

Ogubamichael’s family speaks Tigrinya at home, and her daughter, who is in second grade, is learning English. Five months into the 2021-22 school year, Ogubamichael realized that her daughter was barely making progress in English — and that she wasn’t getting services for English language learners, as had been promised, and which is a federal requirement.

Meanwhile, records from the state schools office show Impact Public Schools has billed the state more than $857,000 in the last four years for funding for English language programming. But teachers told KUOW that English language instruction is essentially nonexistent.

KUOW spoke with 50 parents and staff who voiced concerns about Impact’s treatment of its most vulnerable students — a pattern, they said, that has persisted since the first school opened in 2018.

Of those interviewed, 13 teachers said that Impact’s three schools also failed to provide specialized instruction for many students with disabilities, or those who are highly capable — even though that, too, is legally required.

Impact called the allegations regarding lack of English language services “completely false,” and said it follows the law on that and special education.

"We have been in full compliance with special education requirements this year and every year,” said Rowena Yow, spokesperson for Impact Public Schools. “We offer a full inclusion [English language learner] program that meets all state requirements.”

Jen Davis Wickens, co-founder and CEO of Impact schools, declined numerous interview requests, and agreed to answer questions only over email, via a spokesperson.

In an emailed statement this week, Yow said that the lack of services for Ogubamichael's daughter was an exception, and that the school had failed to request records from her previous school.

"We have put systems in place to prevent this oversight from happening again," Yow said.

KUOW’s investigation also found that the state provides limited oversight to ensure Impact meets English language learner and other federal requirements.

As the state’s charter school law requires, Impact promised to focus its mission on marginalized students, and its demographics reflect the communities around its schools, which are in south Seattle, Tacoma and Tukwila.

The charter chain’s students are mostly children of color from low-income families. Black students make up the largest percentage, including many from East African immigrant and refugee families. Twenty-one percent of students are English language learners, state records show.

caption: CEO of Impact Public Schools Jen Davis Wickens, second from left, attends a tour of the school before the start of a board meeting on Friday, April 29, 2022, at Puget Sound Elementary School in Tukwila.
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CEO of Impact Public Schools Jen Davis Wickens, second from left, attends a tour of the school before the start of a board meeting on Friday, April 29, 2022, at Puget Sound Elementary School in Tukwila.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

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tudents learning English are entitled by federal law to special lessons from teachers certificated or well-trained to work with them.

At most schools with sizable immigrant populations, English language specialists work one-on-one or in groups with students who are still learning the language.

At Impact, however, there are no dedicated English language teachers, state records show. Six of about 100 classroom teachers have professional endorsements to teach English learners, but it is not their focus.

The state is strict about how schools spend money for English learners: it must be put toward goods, services, and salaries directly tied to language lessons.

Impact told the state that the $857,000 in grants for English language learners would go to train classroom teachers, including professional development sessions, and toward salaries for administrators who would coach teachers throughout the year.

In its first grant application, in 2018, Impact listed two teacher trainings about working with English learners.

But those two trainings had little to no focus on English language learners, according to a teacher and an administrator who attended.

That administrator, Baionne Coleman, said she was also surprised to learn that Impact listed her in the state application as the leader of one of the trainings about English learners.

“I didn’t teach any ELL training,” said Coleman, who no longer works for Impact. “I’m not certified to teach ELL.”

Coleman provided the detailed agenda from that three-week summer training. Teaching English learners is never mentioned. Rather, it shows that Coleman led a training on another subject. A slide deck she provided from the training does not refer to English learners.

Although public school teachers have typically done coursework on working with English learners in college teaching programs, at Impact, only about one-quarter of teachers have an education degree, state records show. The rest are mostly new to teaching and hold temporary "conditional" certificates to work at Impact.

Twelve current and former teachers said at Impact they received little to no training to work with English learners.

“We only had one [English language learner] training in the three years I was there,” said former teacher Aurora Pacheco. Teachers asked for more training, but none came, she said.

Impact heavily recruits students from immigrant and refugee communities, including having multilingual staff and volunteers call potential families.

“I don't think parents necessarily know that we don't have an [English language] specialist,” said a teacher at Commencement Bay Elementary, Impact’s charter school in Tacoma, who asked not to be named.

“There’s a child in my class who’s still in the silent stage. He knows words, pretty sure, but he’s not speaking yet,” midway through the school year, the teacher said. “I’m very concerned about this child.”

A teacher at Puget Sound Elementary, in Tukwila, said students who speak no English “just sit there quietly.” That teacher also asked for anonymity.

“[Teachers] basically let them do their own thing as long as they’re not interrupting the class,” the teacher said. “Some of them draw.”

The Tukwila teacher said that teachers might have those students try a reading app the school uses, “but they really don’t understand English, so they just give up and close the laptop. It’s very sad,” the teacher said.

“A kid sitting in a traditional classroom that speaks no English is not being supported,” said attorney Kendrick Washington of the ACLU of Washington, who previously handled civil rights cases at the U.S. Department of Education.

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e Meka Morton jumped at the chance to put her children, who are Black, at a school that promised that no child would slip through the cracks. Morton was particularly excited that her son, who has a vision impairment, would have a special education team on-site at Puget Sound Elementary, compared to the itinerant therapists he saw at his last school in Seattle.

“I jumped on board, because I was like, ‘This is what my son needs. I’m all in. This is the perfect school,’” Morton said.

By the second year, though, 2019, Morton realized that her son was not receiving the special education services he was promised at Impact. When he struggled, he was asked to repeat second grade.

“That should not have been put on the table,” Morton said. She refused, and her son progressed to third grade.

“Impact has no record of any students in 2019 not receiving their IEP services,” said spokesperson Rowena Yow.

Morton’s son came to Impact with a special education plan from his previous school. Parents and staff said that getting such plans at Impact schools can take much of the school year — if it happens at all.

A. Abdi is a mother at Impact’s Tukwila location who said her daughter isn’t getting what she needs out of school.

Abdi said she has been asking Impact for a special education evaluation since last fall, noting that her daughter is having a hard time learning to read and has difficulty understanding new concepts. Schools have 25 working days to decide whether to evaluate a student for special education.

Records provided by Abdi show that after her initial request for an evaluation in November, the school did not follow up for months — then, in March, refused.

Abdi has resorted to paying out of pocket for a special education teacher to tutor her daughter.

“These are services the school should provide to students who need that support. I shouldn’t have to absorb that cost,” Abdi said. (Abdi asked to withhold her first name to protect her daughter’s privacy.)

Federal law requires teachers to refer students with possible learning disabilities to the school for potential evaluation to determine whether the children need special education.

Kelly Thadeus, who taught second grade at Impact’s Tukwila school this year before resigning in March, said he believed six of his students should have been evaluated for special education.

“When we suggest it, we're scolded by the administration saying that we do not have the expertise to make that assessment,” Thadeus said.

Ten current and former Impact staff members told KUOW that administrators avoid evaluating students for learning disabilities. Instead, they said, children who struggle to learn are often asked to repeat a grade, or they switch to a different school.

Yow, the Impact spokesperson, defended the charter school chain, saying: “Parents and teachers may request an assessment to determine a child’s unique learning needs. We evaluate students for [special education] in accordance with the law.”

Four percent of students at Impact schools receive special education, compared to 14% in nearby public elementary schools, state records show. That raises a red flag for Kendrick Washington with the ACLU of Washington.

“I don't really see it as a realistic possibility that they have that low a percentage of students with disabilities,” Washington said.

“It signals that you are either failing to identify students properly, or somewhere in the entry process, you have not accepted or admitted [special education] students,” Washington said. “And then, of course, there is a third possibility: when students’ [disabilities] are identified, schools find ways to push them out.”

Rowena Yow, Impact spokesperson, attributed the three schools’ low rate of special education students to lack of recruiting children with disabilities.

“We know that we can improve our approach to getting the word out about our high-quality special education program,” Yow said by email. She said such outreach efforts are under development.

Special education services are an added expense for schools — sometimes, a considerable one. State records show Impact did not budget for that expense. Impact’s budgets project its schools will have as few as 1% special education students in their first years in operation.

At its largest school, Puget Sound Elementary, there is one certificated special education teacher for 600 students. In contrast, a nearby elementary school in the Highline School District has five certificated special education teachers for 500 students.

Understaffing at Impact schools means that the small number of students who do receive special education often don’t get what’s promised them, staff said.

At Impact’s largest school this year, both special education positions were vacant for months after the teachers quit, staff said, and students did not receive their usual services - something parents were not told.

Impact spokesperson Yow acknowledged the vacant special education positions. “We were able to fill the position with a certified special education teacher in two months,” Yow said, adding that the schools now have fully-staffed special education departments.

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hirty percent of Impact staff have left its schools since the start of the school year, according to data the organization provided - an unusually high number given that school staff typically only change jobs between school years. (In comparison, 1% of instructional staff in the nearby Tukwila School District have resigned this school year, according to that district.)

One Impact teacher, in her resignation letter last fall, cited a lack of support for special education students and an “unsafe and disenfranchising environment… that puts the academic, physical, and emotional safety of students at risk.”

Families have been leaving the charter school chain, too — 13% of the approximately 1240 students enrolled this school year left midyear. In the surrounding districts, elementary school enrollment has been steady or risen in that time period.

At the state schools office in Olympia, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said that his office knows only what Impact has told them about its services.

“Most of what we do is ask districts to make attestations about their use of funds,” Reykdal said. “Periodically, the state auditor will do a deep dive on a performance audit. But that's very, very rare, especially for a new school.”

Reykdal said that if Impact is not meeting its obligations, as parents and staff allege, “that’s alarming.”

The Washington State Charter School Commission is the primary agency overseeing charter schools. Executive Director Jessica de Barros said that to determine whether charters are meeting their legal obligations for special education and English learners, it relies on information from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The state schools office, she said, has not uncovered any serious issues in those areas that would lead to commission intervention.

Impact’s network is set to expand next year with a new school opening in Renton. The network plans to double enrollment in the next four years, adding grade levels to each of its schools.

Senait Ogubamichael, whose daughter was struggling without English language support, now receives daily English lessons at her new school in the Highline School District. Her child’s English and reading have improved more in one month than in the previous five months at Impact, Ogubamichael said.

A. Abdi, who first requested a special education evaluation for her daughter in November, said the school has only now started the process — with only a few weeks left in the school year.

The $100 Abdi used to set aside each month for a fun family outing — a restaurant meal, or the trampoline park — now goes toward tutoring. But Abdi’s older children are understanding, she said, that their little sister needs the help. “Even they see that she’s not grasping the words we read,” she said.

Kelly Thadeus, the second-grade teacher, resigned in late March.

“I couldn't be a part of it so long as it is allowed to continue,” he said. It was painful to leave his students, Thadeus said, adding that he would gladly return if there are drastic improvements for children and staff.

De Meka Morton, who said her son was not getting his full special education services and was then asked to repeat the grade, switched her kids to Impact’s online program so she can oversee their education at home.

“They’re doing all this shady stuff,” Morton said. “They're still opening up new locations. I just don't get that. How does that happen?”

Reach Ann Dornfeld at adornfeld@kuow.org or 206-486-6505.