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Originally published January 30, 2014 at 9:20 PM | Page modified January 31, 2014 at 1:09 AM

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State’s first charter school to open next fall in Seattle

The State Charter School Commission has approved seven new charter schools to open in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Most will open in 2015, but one in Seattle will open in the fall.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Seattle will be home to the first charter school to open in Washington — a privately funded elementary school for homeless children that will become a publicly funded K-5 charter school next fall.

First Place Scholars was among seven nonprofits approved Thursday by the state commission charged with selecting from a field of 19 applicants.

The school will build on a quarter-century of educating homeless children under the auspices of First Place, a social-service agency in Seattle’s Central Area. It intends to change its name but remain at its current location.

The other six schools that won approval from the State Charter School Commission would all open in fall 2015 in the Seattle-Tacoma area:

• Excel Public Charter School, which will focus on STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — for students in grades 6-12 in Kent.

• Green Dot Charter Middle School, operated by a California-based charter-school network, in southeast Tacoma.

• Rainier Prep, a middle school in the Highline school-district area.

• SOAR Academy, a K-8 school in Tacoma.

• Two college-preparatory high schools — Olympus in Tacoma and Sierra in South Seattle — both operated by Summit Public Schools, a California-based network.

The Spokane School District, which is also authorized to approve charter schools, chose PRIDE Prep for grades 6-12 last week from among three applicants. That school is to open in 2015.

The inaugural class of charter schools survived a rigorous application process that advocates praise for setting a high bar in a state where many skeptics of charter schools remain.

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of charters is expected to be decided by the Washington Supreme Court.

Charter schools are free, privately operated schools that aren’t bound by many of the rules and regulations governing traditional districts. They’re considered public schools because they receive taxpayer dollars on a per-student basis, like school districts.

After keeping them out of Washington for years, voters narrowly approved a law in 2012 that allows the state and approved school districts to issue contracts to nonprofit organizations to operate up to 40 new charter schools over a five-year period.

A coalition led by the state teachers union filed a lawsuit in July, asking a judge to declare the law unconstitutional for “improperly diverting public-school funds to private organizations that are not subject to local voter control.”

King County Superior Court Judge Jean Rietschel in December struck down the part of the law that would have made charter schools eligible for state construction money, ruling that they don’t meet the definition of “common schools” because they are not under the control of the voters of the school district.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office defended the law’s constitutionality, claimed victory on the rest of the law, and the process for selecting the first class of charter schools proceeded.

Both sides have asked the Washington Supreme Court to decide the issue, but it has not indicated whether it will take the case.

The commission rejected most of the 19 applications Thursday.

Tania de Sá Campos, state deputy director of Democrats for Education Reform, said she appreciated the rigor of the process. She was involved in the campaign to pass the law and is part of the effort to defend it in court.

“I’m personally very happy at the high bar,” she said. “I would choose the deliberation and the high standards over a rush just to get doors open that don’t serve kids.”

The nine-member state commission contracted with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to analyze the applications with teams of independent evaluators.

Those teams read applications that in some cases exceeded 500 pages and interviewed those who would lead the schools.

Applicants had to demonstrate sound educational programs, realistic five-year budgets and effective organizational plans carried out by leaders, staff and board members with a wide range of expertise.

The commission followed most of those recommendations at Thursday’s meeting, with one exception.

The evaluation team for SOAR Academy had recommended denial, citing insufficient financial planning, but the school’s leaders persuaded the commission they could raise enough money.

“They had a number of people today, both board members as well as their executive director who were able, I think, to help the commission understand that they are ready,” said commission Chairman Stephen Sundquist.

The State Board of Education must certify the choices, and the commission has 90 days to reach a contract agreement with each of the schools.

The only one ready to go in the fall will be First Place Scholars, which will close its elementary school in June and reopen this fall in the same building, the Odessa Brown Community Health Building.

Sheri Day, acting executive director, said the transition from a private school to a publicly funded charter school will help them keep students for more than three years and grow the program rather than just sustain it.

The school expects to enroll about 100 but has space in its building to eventually enroll twice that many.

“What we do and how we do it is expensive, but it works and it works long term,” Day said.

“The name will change. We are going to be a public school. We will have access to public dollars as a result and we will be able to grow and create a space for more children.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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