Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Parents and Community Pleased with First Place Charter School

First Place Scholars Charter School, Seattle
Parents Find Stability as a Plus at First Place
Parents are the key to an excellent education for young children. This was proven at First Place Scholars a charter school in Seattle, Africatown/Central District. For 25 years its mission of a high expectation education with wrap around family services for Seattle's poorest elementary age children is not lost in its transition to a charter school.  "Parents were at first concerned but are now very pleased with the new School Leader Dr. Linda Whitehead, and the therapeutic environment for learning she has established," says Linda Battle's whose grand children attend First Place Scholars. "

Poor families are highly mobile and for many reasons. Moving can disrupt a child's education. Because First Place Scholars, a free public charter school bears the cost of city wide transportation, when a family moves their child can remain at First Place Scholars. The benefit is in the midst of family turmoil,  education for the young student remains stable.

First Place a Neighborhood School
Creating partnerships and utilizing community amenities give highly mobile students and  parents a sense of place. Community partnerships span those within in blocks of the school and across the Seattle landscape. Furthest is Islandwood Environmental Camp which First Place students have been attending since its inception more than a decade ago. Sue Byers who is with Islandwood is also a community advisor to First Place.  Antioch University brings psychology interns to the building.  Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute is a two block walk, and students have this state of the art theater for performance arts that adds to their social and emotional growth. While some of the children are at the theater, others are in Skills and Drills at the Rotary Boys and Girls Club a block away from the school, while others are at one of the two parks within sight of the school building. These partnerships are what gives First Place Students the experiences of being part of a neighborhood and makes the neighborhood the First Place Scholars campus and it is the neighborhood of Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix, their Garfield High School is visible from FPS.

Another Community Partner is Village Spirit Center, Directed by Evelyn Allen, who did not hesitate to step in as Board Vice President when asked. She has been a key to what makes First Place work as a multi faceted organization for many years.  Village Spirit Center is a spin off of the Catholic Community Services and Housing Black Family Center. Parent, Dara knows the value of a First Place Education that has supplied her family with stability throughout what was trauma filled decade of getting to stability. "My older girls are now honor students at traditional public schools and my youngest is enjoying the same excellent education I have come to expect of First Place."  What brought complaint in October from parents is now their favorite feature of the school, the Academic Extended Day has children applying what is learned in the normal part of the school day in activities such as robotics, science, scouting, conversational Spanish and Japanese, art expression are among the favorite. They all bring the social emotional training that supports a rigorous high expectation education.  Scouting is both science and social in learning about the environment and anti-bullying. The whole child must be considered and that is what makes the school a great place for my son, Demi told board members. The safety of First Place makes it the first and only place she feels safe leaving her child. "It is my only family right now and is helpful for managing my mental illness and keeping it in control." Next year her  pre-schooler will be enrolled in Kindergarten.

Correction Outcomes a Model for Parents
In completing the infamous 38 compliance issues we stepped up to fix, it was much like adopting a child with many needs. First Place Scholars Leadership has modeled for our families and even charter schools not yet opened, the positive outcomes of accepting that there is something not working, collaborating to solve the problem, and staying focused on intended outcomes. The kind of staying focused on getting to better we expect of parents through case management. The need to bring correction has helped us align with parents who must endure corrections to bring their families to functional and students to scholars.  Josephine Howell is a former parent and now school board member and knows getting to functional is not easy for everyone, "It has been surprising to see those individuals and organizations, including funders who ducked and took cover, and those who are stepping up as full partners in this work to assure that First Place will always be open and ready to educate poor children.

"We have had analyzing and working with us many who want First Place to work for the students we are educating, says School Leader Dr. Whitehead."  Some of who she refers to are; US Dept. of Education, WA State Auditors, WA Charter Commission, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, School Works, WA Charter Association, League of Education Voters, STAND for Children, WA Legislators, Puget Sound Education Service District, WA's Middle School Teacher of the Year, Keisha Scarlett spends evenings and weekends in collegial strategic sessions with Whitehead, and Chair of FPS Education Committee. Catholic Community Services President and CEO Michael Reichart, has extended the full support of what is one of the largest non profit service and housing agencies in WA State.

Now that we have submitted all of the correctives, we are focused assuring everyone has a chance to do something to support the education of our students and services for our families. Giving on May 5, will double your donation and include you in the growing number of individuals who see the value of the work we do.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Informing Afternoon with Women in the Nation of Islam

In a life so long ago, the Nation of Islam infused in me the courage to love myself as a Black women in America and to not be a coward when it came to protecting the right for Black children to have an excellent education. On Saturday I joined a room of women the Women of Seattle's Nation of Islam Group invited from all walks of life and got glimpse into a very different experience than that I had 40 years ago. The liberation of women was very evident and the move of the Nation away from a separatist organization was refreshing. More people need to be comfortable with men and women who are building for Blacks self determined solutions to problems that keep expanding. Today the issues that need solving are sex trafficking of young girls, brutal rapes that have men acting like a pack of wild animals without being stopped, women being equal to men in jobs and pay, and joining women across the country and around the globe; Chines, Korean, African, European who are standing up and throwing off repression.  It was noted that of all the women in the world Black women in American have been the most oppressed and for a sustained 500 years.  

Eating nutritious foods and not giving children fast food was seen as ways to diminish the poor health of Blacks and their children. The right to have tax money we pay given to Blacks to educate their own children in a nation that has created school failure was not a change from what the Nation of Islam has always promoted. And visitors seemed to agree that this is something that women could work together on. 

With his wife the First Lady of the Nation Sister Khadijah Farakhan and her daughter applauding these transformative doctrines, Farakkan said someone has to do something about human trafficking and police shootings. And if the Government is not going to do something the people will have to. He announced a 20 year anniversary of Million Man March in October. And This will be a very serious one and our women of courage will be with us.  

The Nation of Islam helped develop me as a courageous person, but the inequality for women made it impossible for me have a sustained presence. So it is refreshing to see women as Ministers, in leadership roles and being treated with equity in their homes and in the affairs of the nation. Also seeing  Seattle Women reaching out to join in the work that must be done and must be done by women of all faiths and beliefs was the message today an a refreshing one, if our children male and female are to gain education, social and economic equity.  

 Seattle's Save our Girls Event on Saturday April 18, 2015

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Parents Believed that the WA Charter Commission Had Done their Due Dilligence

Parents had no reason to question the decision of the WA Charter Commission they thought they knew what they were doing when they approved First Place Scholars Charter School for student enrollment. By December of the first year the school had 38 out of compliance issues. An unheard of number for any school district and surely for any one school. Actually, upon taking over the school as a new board and school leader, there was little we could find right with the school. Today five months later our doors are opened to daily visitors and they are pleased with what we have done. Even the light bulbs have been replaced, and the after school program finds children in a fun and energetic experiential program of technology, math, arts and science. Building robots, doing karate, and learning conversational Japanese and Spanish.

The Washington Charter Commission signed the charter contract with former board President, Daniel Seydell, II  Mr. Seydell presided over the transition board, a board that was not in compliance as to structure based on the Commissions own rules. On October 28, 2014 after the majority of the transition board resigned and he was voted off the board after refusing a request that he resign,  a new board was established.  in November. An assessment was done by School Works after a two day site visit. The new board which is now made up of 9 new board members including me as the new Board President used the outcomes as our roadmap to get FPSCS onto a better course. This was the demand of community, teachers and parents and even students spoke at a standing room only FPS Charter School Board meeting in mid October. Their school was in major conflict, out of compliance, it was not safe.

The first thing that the new board did was accept an amicable resignation from the existing School Leader she agreed we needed an education administration specialist to do what we needed to do to get the school turned onto a better course while assuring that our students and teachers daily experience was without disruption.

We hired Dr. Linda Whitehead who had been an education administrator in Camden NJ, one of America's most challenged districts, and in Redmond, WA located in one of the top school districts the educators of the children of Microsoft employees. She had been a School Superintendent in Marysville, WA and a Director at Casey Family Programs. It took one look for her to know that the school had major problems to its structures and systems. The consultants had totally dismantled what has made the former school work well. New teachers were hired, and the Special Education teacher that had been employed for 13 years was let go without a replacement. By the time the dust settled 38 out of compliance issues were discovered partly by the Commission who did not write the first letter of correction until after the new Board was seated and the assessment ordered. In other words, they did not get concerned until after we expressed our concern as to how they could have signed a charter contract with a school that needed time to put its structures and systems into place. But that is why the board hired someone who could run a school while simultaneously building one. This was more then fixing systems, most were not in place at all.

A normal parent believes when they enroll their child in a school that has been approved to enroll students and receive state funds that the school has met all assurances that it is ready to receive students. Also the predecessor school had been an award winning model for educating children with challenges associated with sustained poverty. But they were not told that the approved proposal had dismantled the James Comer Model and replaced it with one that was quite different. How would a parent know that the Commission that was appointed to usher in charter schools and sign contracts with individual schools would approve a school that had no safety plan, no special education policy, incomplete background checks, no approved application for reimbursement for free and reduced lunch program with OSPI, and 38 other public school structural and systems either not existing or flawed?

So for five months Dr. Linda Whitehead, her staff and I and our board have kept our noses to the grindstone building the school our students and parents deserve. A herculean task but one that had to be done. The WA Commission did a rush job on FPSCS in delivering it prematurely. Then they did a rush job of placing not the team that botched the delivery but the specialists who turned the school around immediately onto safe waters for our students and parents. The first thing we did was put the board into compliance as to members, got trained as a Charter School Board and WA Charter Association staff, including learning how to govern under the Open Public Meeting Act.  We worked with a community advisory team headed by Keisha Scarlett, Washington's Middle School Principal of the year to put into place a 30, 60, 90 day plan. We hired Dr. Whitehead and made assuring that our students were physically, emotionally and educationally safe and that their teachers had the support systems they needed. It baffles us that the WA Charter Commission has shown so much bravado, even suggesting that their concern for our brown, black and poor children trumps ours. They are not a different body or Executive Director from those who thought it okay to approve a school that had no curriculum or systems for academic measurements and no industry approved finance and audit practices. Now they say they are concerned about our finances. Well so were we and now that we have put into place finance and audit structures to safeguard state and donor funds, they have much to say about the damage to this ill fated delivery of a school they approved.

So when you read anything that they have to say to the public about First Place Scholars Charter School know that they either learned it from us as a report of a material finding, or that we have already begun the work of fixing it.

What we have asked for and may or may not get depending upon what measure of responsibility they take for the mistakes they not our our current board and school leader made. They signed the contract and we are living up to it and fixing what they allowed to be the first charter school in Washington State.  As of Friday we are told they are working more diligently on trying to be better team players with FPSCS leadership. That will of course mean they have to give us time to raise funds, test the new systems, stress test the structures, train our teachers to the measurement systems. They put the most negative things about the school and our ability in the press and then say "We are concerned about your ability to raise funds."  Well they approved a fund raising plan that makes sense to no one. One that we have to rewrite. The entire budget they approved has to be re-written.

This is the same team that approved the proposal and signed the contract. We are a different leadership team. We are the result of what can happen with charter schools, the community was not happy a change occurred immediately. The WA Charter Commission does not have to answer to the public, they are appointed. So we will see if the Governor will step in and help. We did elect him.

Calling In The Specialists To Save Washington's First Charter School

The words used recently by the Washington Charter Commission in the most recent article is revoke.  This of course infers closure of the school. It is very important for the public, parents, and community to know that only the First Place Board of Directors can make that decision and as Board President, I speak for a board that will not step away from doing what has been done for 25 years. Our Mission is to educate poor children. We will fight to the finish to assure that we keep the charter our children deserve to have as much as any in this state. They are the children the charter was voted to educate; brown, black, poor, those that traditional publics wring their hands over.

The WA Charter Commission erred terribly when they signed a contract with the former FPSCS Board and delivered prematurely to Washington the first charter school. It was a school that was not given the same time that others are enjoying to build their dream school. This created a take over of the school by the community it serves and a new board and School leader was hired to establish the structures and systems usual to a school, charter, traditional public or private. Since November as a volunteer and December 9, 2014 as our newly hired School Leader and Executive Director she has lead the arduous task of saving First Place Scholars Charter School. She has been a School Superintendent, a principal and a Director of a national organization focused on very poor children. She came out of retirement from a 30 year career. She has been good not only for FPSCS but for the Commission's Executive Director. As was told in one article, The Charter Commission is learning on First Place Scholars. A statement I resent. The people of Washington did not vote in charters for adults to learn on the backs and dimes of poor children. It is an arrogant statement and that is what power and privilege produces, arrogance.

There has been a well strategized communication plan from the Commission and its advisors that covers over what they did in granting prematurely the charter for a school not yet ready to be delivers. Now they speak of pulling the plug. Well that is not going to happen without some clear truth telling and giving the public a chance to hear our side of the story. To have told it too early would have caused an even more punitive correction plan and the one in place is brutal. But we hired the right person to do this work and the assembled a courageous and knowledgeable board of directors able to govern the school to where it should have been in September.

The community called in the specialists and we are doing a grand job of putting things right first for our students and then to save the charter movement from a black eye. pun intended.

Read next blog entry to see what we are doing to straighten out the mess the Commission made in granting a charter before a school was ready. 

First Place Scholars Charter School Will Never Close It's Doors to Poor Children

Marselas Owens, First Place Alum with Pres.Barack Obama
When President Barack Obama signed the Health Care Bill, standing with him was First Place Alum, Marselas Owens. He cut his teeth on lobbying decision makers when a 3rd grader. He is representative of the high expectations we have for our students. He  looks wealthy, most of our children look and perform from expectations of excellence.

So what happened that changed this when First Place became a charter school?

First it is important to know that the WA Charter Commission erred and made a drastic delivery to WA State a charter school that was not given time equal to develop as received by the other 7 authorized schools. We are a school that was first dismantled by a team of Consultants, Linda and Ronald McDonald dba Model Schools Project. They changed from the James Comer Model to a Blended model that relies heavily on computer based instruction. Education research tells us young children do not learn best from computers and it is not healthy for the development.

But that is only one egregious thing that the WA Charter Commission overlooked when approving FPSCS proposal. The finance reporting was not in keeping with accounting principles and they overlooked that the school was in financial free fall before the first student was enrolled.

A parent, even a poor parent and all of our parents live beneath the poverty line with their children. In Seattle 54% of African American children are poor, so FPSCS has always been a natural choice for this population of students who do not as a population fair well in traditional schools. Marselas who is shown here is not atypical of what we do to bring poor children to excellence.

Any parent would expect that background checks had been done for every adult on staff. The charter was approved without every adult having one. They would think that the computer systems that were said to be important to the curriculum would be up and going and the teachers trained on how to teach and measure using these newly installed surface tablets. The system did not get rolled out until after the new board and leadership team in November took over the school and turned it around. Now the Commission says they are concerned about measurement. They should have been concerned in September when they signed the contract. We tell them things that we are fixing and then they write us letters of concern, this has been a consistent practice for the five months Dr. Whitehead, our School Leader and an extraordinary education administrator has been putting things right at WA first charter school.

Any who has followed the media articles about First Place Scholars might believe that we are on a fast track for closing rather than a fast track for correcting what was so horribly wrong. What could the Commission and their Executive Director, Josh Halsey be thinking.  In a Februrary, 2015  letter to Mr. Halsey, from a former WA Charter Commissioner and also architect of the original First Place School she reminded him that she had told him the school was not ready and the contract should not be signed. That the school should be given the same time line to get set up as the other schools.

The Seattle Times article and headlines infers that the school could be closed. Well the Commission does have the right to revoke the charter but they own only the charter, not the school. And the state has not released 50% of the funds needed to run the school. Because of the rush to enroll students at a new charter school, no food reimbursement application was in place, transportation reimbursement systems were not structured and no approved special education plan was in place to reimburse for these expensive but necessary costs for any school.  What were they thinking?  I can not answer because after being retired from the original First Place Board and not being part of the start up of the charter, I only returned late October, 2014.  And returned for the sole purpose of saving a treasure of a school. An education jewel supported by thousands of generous and compassionate individuals, foundations, and corporate sponsors in this region. For 25 years we brought children to excellence.

Charters are in place to improve, not diminish education for poor children. The Commission owes our students and their parents and explanation. How have they made the victim the criminal. The students show up everyday, the teachers teach everyday, the parents and volunteers are supportive, the new board keeps its nose to the strategic planning and policy grindstone and Dr. Linda is operating the school during the day and writing fixes to compliances at night and weekends. For this we get only threats and answers to corrective plans that says, this is not good enough. Okay, but really now had they had this kind of brutal oversight and scrutiny before the contract was signed would I be writing this?

Read the next blog for more about what really happened on the way to a threat to revoke the first charter given in WA State.