Within the walls of Summit Sierra High School, the noise level is abuzz with student activity in each of the brightly painted classrooms, a usual scene for the school that sits atop the hill on King Street in the International District. Despite historic legal and legislative challenges resulting from the state Supreme Court ruling last September that invalidated the state’s former public charter school law passed by Washington voters in 2012, teaching, learning, and community building have gone uninterrupted here at Sierra—a testament to the resilience, motivation, and dedication of the students and faculty at this innovative Seattle high school.
For many months, with the future of their school and the state’s entire public charter school sector uncertain, Sierra families, together with parents and students from charter schools statewide, passionately dedicated countless hours and energy to help keep their schools open. Through one-on-one meetings with legislators, rallies, compelling testimonies in front of legislative committees, phone banking, social media activity, op-eds, letters to the editor, and text campaigning, these families reached state leaders.
It was a victorious moment for students and families throughout Washington when lawmakers from both sides of the aisle came together to pass Senate Bill 6194 in the 2016 legislative session. The bill offered a solution to keep charter schools open and public, with a fix to the funding glitch identified by the courts, ensuring that Washington families have access to innovative public school choice while simultaneously upholding the will of the voters.
On April 1, 2016, Governor Jay Inslee announced his decision to allow the passage of the bipartisan charter school solution without his signature. While disappointed not to have the support of the governor, Washington students and families celebrated the law’s passage as a victorious milestone.
“We are thrilled that we will be able to continue as we planned. Not knowing whether or not we would be able to make good on our promises to families was so disappointing. We love this community, and we are so glad to know that we are here to stay,” said Malia Burns, the founding executive director at Sierra.
In less than a year, Sierra’s founding ninth grade class has shown tremendous academic growth. In a mid-year assessment using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), Sierra students outperformed the national average on reading by 40 percent and more than doubled the national average in math. The high school currently serves over 100 ninth grade public school students, with over half qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, and of whom more than 75 percent are students of color. Sierra looks forward to enrolling a new cohort of ninth graders for the 2016-2017 school year.
“When the court decision was initially made last September, our team took a strong stance to ensure that our students could maintain a high-quality school experience at a school they had already started to come to love. We are so grateful that the state has now determined a way to support our students as well,” says Dustin Dacuan, a founding teacher at Sierra.
Dacuan, a Seattle native, says that his goal as an educator is to teach in his home community in a school where families felt a strong sense of ownership. “It is important to me as a teacher that the school is seen as a community center—a place where families entrust the school staff to work in concert with them to make sure their children receive a quality education. I feel confident now to say that our school is doing just that. As a local, it is also humbling for me to know that students from backgrounds like mine have access to choosing a school like ours.“
Earlier in the school year, Sierra surveyed their families to gauge satisfaction and whether families would recommend Sierra to others. All of their families responded with a resounding “yes.”
To Dacuan, that was a defining moment that gave nod to the work that he and the Sierra staff commit to everyday. Looking toward the future, Dacuan expresses excitement in getting to meet and work with the future classes of students and families to ensure they get the high-quality and personalized education that they deserve.
“I am so proud of our founding class and our founding faculty. They have taken sincere ownership of their success, our school, and each other. The future holds incredible promise for the Summit Sierra community,” said Burns.
Washington’s public charter schools are offering innovative public school options to communities who typically have not had access to such options, and they are helping closing the academic equity gap. Statewide, more than two-thirds of students in public charter schools are from low-income households and more than 70 percent are students of color. And across the board, according to mid-year assessment results, students attending Washington’s public charter schools are making impressive gains in reading and math, with some already having grown multiple grade levels in half a school year.
Beyond the Puget Sound and Spokane, thousands of families across the state, in communities like Yakima, the Tri-Cities, Walla-Walla, are demanding additional options and advocating for public charter schools in their areas. The passage of the new public charter school law means that these communities can also move forward with plans to open schools that meet the needs of the diverse students they serve.
As celebrations continue across the state following the law’s passage, families and supporters are not taking a break from planning ongoing advocacy work. With the state’s paramount duty to fully fund education still looming ahead, these public school families are holding the state accountable to fulfill its duty to meet the basic education requirements for all students, as well as to ensure that school choice is here to stay.
Amy Van is a project manager with Washington State Charter Schools Association.