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WA’s first charter school serves children, families of ‘extreme poverty’

By   /   February 17, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 54 of 126 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Struggling with drug abuse, domestic violence and physical abuse, Josephine Howell spent five years “on and off homeless.” Many days she didn’t know where she and her children would spend the night. Often, they’d wash up in a McDonald’s rest room because they didn’t have access to showers.

FIRST PLACE: Since the school became a charter school, First Place can enroll more students and expand its services for adults.

FIRST PLACE: Since the school became a charter school, First Place can enroll more students and expand its services for adults.

First Place, a Seattle nonprofit, helped Howell get on track and helped her kids reach grade level in their schoolwork. Now, she and her kids are “thriving,” and Howell sits on the First Place board and helps others in situations like hers.

Thanks to Washington’s new charter school law, First Place will be able to expand its program, doubling the size of its school this fall and diverting more funding to its housing, mental health and advocacy programs.

“It’s a complicated organization with a lot of moving parts,” said Sheri Day, acting executive director. “A benefit of becoming a public charter is we will be much more focused and strategic about the work we do and be in a position to help a lot more people in the different ways that we’ve become really skilled at.”

After a charter school bill stalled in committee, Washington voters in 2012 passed a ballot measure allowing charter schools.

Charter school opponents sued the state, hoping to have the law overturned. The court upheld the substance of the law, striking down a provision that didn’t change anything. The state’s supreme court is likely to hear the case.

First Place began 25 years ago in partnership with Seattle Public Schools as a place for students who didn’t have permanent addresses. In 2001, new federal regulations stopped SPS from funding the school. This fall, the school will open as a charter school — publicly funded and still free to keep its mission. All the fundraising proceeds, then, can support First Place’s other programs.

The school serves children struggling with the trauma of poverty, who “may be witnessing domestic violence, or the families could be highly mobile,” Day said.

As a result of that trauma, children at First Place often have mental health issues, like anxiety disorders, or behavioral problems, Day said. They might attend a public school for a week or two before their families move again, and they may be out of school for a few weeks.

They often enter First Place two or three grade levels behind.

“They don’t have the ability to sit in a traditional classroom and be with children of their age, because of their circumstances,” Day said. “It’s an exceptional educational model, but it’s so very worth it because the kids are worth it. These are kids that would fail in traditional settings, and we find them to be brilliant.”

First Place has one teacher for every 14 children, plus instructional aides and individual mentors for students.

“They thrive more with that personal care, because these are kids that you never know on any given day what might have happened the night before,” Day said. “They may come in having problems that we hadn’t seen before, and we have to adjust the teaching plan for the day.”

Each student has a volunteer mentor, and many students stay in touch with their mentor through college and after graduation.

“Even living with their parents, their parents are so stressed they can’t give the kids the individual care that they need,” Day said. “This gives them one adult that’s always available for them. The child comes to know this is an adult they can trust.”

The school serves about 50 students, and next year will be able to serve about 100. The staff hopes to grow: the building has a capacity for 200 students, and board members have discussed obtaining additional buildings as part of a longer-term plan.

More than 50 families are living in First Place’s transitional housing and about 40 families are in long-term supportive housing, which includes case management services to help families become self-sufficient.

first place 2

FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY: Children at First Place benefit from the school, and from the help the nonprofit provides to their parents.

“The goal is to give them the skills so they don’t need us,” Day said.

Those are skills Howell’s family has gained through First Place’s program.

“First Place was the only stable thing that we had in our lives,” Howell said. “My children would run to get ready in the morning. My daughter would usually hide in the school because she didn’t want to go home. She didn’t know where we were going to go.”

The school helped her children with clothing and hygiene and taught them to advocate for themselves, Howell said. It also taught them confidence.

“For us parents, we see, ‘okay, you’re down at this grade level, you got to get to this level here,’ and we forget to say, ‘See you’re right here, and I’m really proud of you, you did that! Now our next goal is…’” Howell said. “We forgot to do that, and First Place did. They supplied us with confidence.

“But they never did things for us. Even when we’d ask, they’d say, ‘Here’s a book of references,’ or ‘Here’s a company’ we could call. We always had to do it ourselves,” Howell said. “We’d come back and say, ‘Well, we did that,’ and then they would step in as advocates. But I can’t remember a time when they ever did it for us, ever. And sometimes it was real frustrating.

“I remember breaking down and saying, ‘I can’t do all this right now.’ I remember my counselor telling me, ‘Well, who’s gonna do it?’ And I thought, ‘How rude!’ (My counselor said) ‘You’re the parent. You have the power to do it, and they’re depending on you. When it’s all said and done, your face is the face they’re going to look for.’

“I thought even in my messed up state I couldn’t be responsible. But even in my state, instead of snatching the children away as many agencies did, they said, ‘The only way to make sure this child’s life is okay is to make sure this family’s life is okay.’”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at [email protected]

Part of 126 in the series Educating America
  1. Arizona mom won’t give up on special needs kids, no matter what state says
  2. Reviving a 1970s lawsuit, DOJ would keep black students in failing schools
  3. Relocating sexually abusive teachers would be more difficult under Pennsylvania bill
  4. DOJ backpedals on Louisiana voucher lawsuit
  5. Court says charter schools won’t pay for Atlanta’s pension debts
  6. Biggest education impact from shutdown? Furloughed bureaucrats
  7. Appeals court upholds Arizona school choice program
  8. Indiana’s voucher program expands; diversity a factor in one family’s choice of school
  9. ‘Vouchers don’t do much good for students’ claim is false
  10. NYC mayor’s race could affect school choice
  11. Vermont public school goes independent, raises ire from state bureaucracy
  12. Arizona education savings accounts aren’t vouchers, study says
  13. Legal institute fights Alabama union’s attempt to repeal school tax credit
  14. Experts: School choice improves education in public schools
  15. SC school-choice program helps special needs kids, could expand
  16. DOJ wants Louisiana parents out of voucher lawsuit
  17. U.S. House passes bill to prevent ‘passing the trash’
  18. ‘Non-traditional’ journalists barred from viewing tax-funded test results early
  19. New center hopes to help charter schools help kids with special needs
  20. Charter school advocate to Philadelphia schools: Listen to parents
  21. $45 million not enough for Philadelphia teachers’ union
  22. Study: Rhode Islanders support school choice
  23. Study: Choice would help failing Chicago schools
  24. Scholarships could lift SC school dedicated to real-life, hands-on learning
  25. Parents make good school choices, study says
  26. Divisive charter school reform bill headed toward vote in PA
  27. In Louisiana school voucher lawsuit, DOJ changes gears
  28. Opponents sue Washington to overturn charter school law
  29. School choice proponents’ challenge? Educating parents
  30. Judge: Federal oversight may not hamper school voucher program
  31. PA lawmakers push to amend tight teacher furlough policies
  32. College ready: A Milwaukee inner-city school success story
  33. Proposed economic furloughs could slay sacred cow of seniority in Pennsylvania schools
  34. What is Massachusetts doing right?
  35. Goldwater to appeal Louisiana school voucher decision
  36. Want to end poverty? Educate the kids
  37. Breakdown in Philly schools not only about the money
  38. North Carolina scholarship program on firm legal footing, attorney argues
  39. Philadelphia school district threatens charters
  40. Belief in student ability key to success at Milwaukee charter school
  41. Three things to know about Philadelphia’s school budget: Debt, pensions and safety
  42. Choosing to sue: Here’s a look at some 2013 lawsuits involving school choice
  43. Philly charter schools outperform district counterparts
  44. California students sue state over ineffective teachers
  45. Study: Public supports parent choice in education
  46. Under new management, Philly Renaissance Schools show growth
  47. New Orleans tops school choice index
  48. AZ to consider four school-choice expansion bills
  49. Florida family ‘blessed’ to be apart of scholarship program
  50. PA lawmakers put education at top of agenda in election year
  51. Louisiana: Feds ‘more interested in skin color than … education’
  52. Charter school for Philadelphia foster children will not be renewed
  53. Governor ties proposed PA education funding to targeted grants
  54. WA’s first charter school serves children, families of ‘extreme poverty’
  55. Vermont attempts to take independence from independent schools
  56. Philly stumbles on way to simplifying enrollment system
  57. Plan for Philly schools keeps charters in check
  58. Missouri ballot initiative would increase funding for public, private schools
  59. New York charter school focuses on family, community
  60. NC school vouchers on hold
  61. WI voucher bill would help special needs students denied open enrollment
  62. Philadelphia schools will end another year in red
  63. PA universities expect state, students to pick up tab on rising tuition
  64. Two ESA bills get House support in AZ
  65. Thousands rally to support New York charter schools
  66. California’s defense begins in Vergara trial
  67. Accountability or overregulation? Charter supporters split over Minnesota bill
  68. PA considers empowering universities to authorize charter schools
  69. Bill would make Florida students eligible for scholarships
  70. To test or not to test? Florida school choice proponents split
  71. Philly school district broke, but the pay is good
  72. Philadelphia charter school sues public school district
  73. Colorado Supreme Court to hear school voucher case
  74. Vermont to reconsider education funding formula
  75. Arizona Supreme Court allows school choice program to stand
  76. Massachusetts charter school bill revived
  77. Quality schools matter more than racial integration, black leaders say
  78. FL again takes up school-choice bill
  79. Choice Media’s videocast tackles host of education issues
  80. Ending teacher seniority rules beyond Philly requires legislative action
  81. New website helps Detroit parents choose schools
  82. Philly schools caught on funding merry-go-round
  83. Louisiana bill would coordinate school choice programs
  84. New D.C. charter school lottery eases but doesn’t eliminate waiting lists
  85. Federal bill attempts to help replicate high-quality state charter schools
  86. Philadelphia schools awaiting taxes from city, state
  87. ACLU alleges discrimination in 138 NJ districts
  88. MN anti-bullying bill could have unintended consequences
  89. Mississippi’s special needs bill to return next year
  90. Illinois considers three-year ban on virtual charter schools
  91. Violent Philly high school source of worry
  92. Auditors examining troubled Philadelphia school district
  93. Civil liberties organization sues to overturn anti-bullying law
  94. Legal conflict over teacher seniority in Philly heats up
  95. Academics, culture help mom choose private school
  96. PA cyber charter schools could be funded by state, not districts
  97. Arizona expands school choice program
  98. The sticky statistic of statewide charter school performance in PA
  99. Louisiana offers new vocational technical program
  100. Benefits are driving high personnel costs in Philadelphia schools
  101. Educators look to grow with expanding Hispanic demographic
  102. Philadelphia flexes muscle over charter schools
  103. Philly school district facing another bleak budget
  104. Andre Agassi dedicates Indianapolis charter school
  105. For PA and neighboring states, school spending and graduation rates don’t add up
  106. At long last, PA school buses could be getting a boost
  107. Arizona charter schools need funding fix, proponents say
  108. Progress reports for Philadelphia schools show uneven achievement
  109. Teachers union opposes ‘Bad Teachers’
  110. Governor’s plans to boost education funding falls short
  111. Georgia’s school-choice program draws legal challenge
  112. Missouri parents want more choice in education
  113. U.S. lawmakers to consider charter school bill
  114. Florida’s school choice expansion awaits governor’s signature
  115. PA charter schools may see drop in funding with new special education formula
  116. In Nevada, your child’s school records could cost $10K
  117. AG, lawmakers propose similar updates to PA charter school rules
  118. NC school voucher program gets temporary green light
  119. Philly school district’s lack of transparency frustrates families
  120. Bullying motivates many parents to home-school, attorney says
  121. Philadelphia City Council gambles to fund schools
  122. PA Supreme Court pushes forward charter school’s lawsuit against Philly
  123. Feds consider joining school choice game
  124. Florida’s new school choice law likely to spark others
  125. California teacher reform lawsuit sparks copycat, more likely to come
  126. School choice is popular — when parents know about it
  127. What can private schools learn from charters?


Mary was formerly a national education reporter for Watchdog.org.