During early rumblings about charter schools in Washington, many national chains backed away, taking a wait-and-see approach before wading into Seattle’s treacherous waters.
That wariness was understandable. The state’s charter school law squeaked by in 2012, weathering vigorous push-back from the teachers union, and in Seattle distaste among voters was particularly strong. Acknowledging the skepticism, Marco Petruzzi, president and chief executive officer of the California-based Green Dot chain, said his company did not want to “be in the situation of being intruders.”
But now, Green Dot is here, meeting with South Seattle parents, gaining approval for a middle school in Tacoma and winning authorization to open a combination middle-and-high school in Seattle.
So why the shift? Only one charter — First Place — has opened within Seattle’s city limits, and there has been little softening of anti-charter rhetoric in the blogosphere.
“It’s a good question,” said Bree Dusseault who will head the new school, to open in South Seattle in 2016, though the exact address is yet undecided.
“To be honest, everyone we’ve met in the South Seattle community has been quite cordial and inviting, and there is almost universal agreement that in the current system low-income, minority students are falling through the cracks,” she said. “That’s something we’ve found common ground on.”
Green Dot, like many charter operators, focuses on neighborhoods where many students are failing in traditional public schools. Since last summer, the company has aggressively reached out to South Seattle parents through the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club, Neighborhood House and Atlantic Street Center, among other community groups.
Dusseault said that at a recent meeting, one man pointed out that only a handful of students in Seattle’s advanced-track programs are African-American.
“We’ve heard that families really want schools where their students can experience a rigorous academic environment,” Dusseault said. “Parents want to see kids coming home with homework at night.”
That may be. But Green Dot also means direct competition for neighborhood schools like Aki Kurose Middle, where scores have been rising, and Rainier Beach High, which just launched its ambitious International Baccalaureate program last year.
“I’d like to know what they’re made of, and what they look like,” said Rita Green, a longtime parent at Rainier Beach, who acknowledged that some charters have had success. The problem, she said, is that in Seattle’s already under-funded system, Green Dot will siphon even more dollars from traditional public schools.
“It means even less money going to our students, and that’s really the problem.”
Dusseault’s name will be familiar to longtime Seattle School-watchers. As a former supervisor in the district, she fired popular Ingraham High School Principal Martin Floe in 2011, touching off a firestorm of angry parent reaction — so much so that the district eventually reversed itself and Floe kept his job.
Is Dusseault daunted about once again wading into the highly polarized Seattle education conversation?
“There’s some healthy and appropriate skepticism,” she said, chuckling, “which I would expect and even want to see in a thoughtful community.”