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Originally published September 19, 2013 at 4:22 PM | Page modified September 20, 2013 at 11:20 AM

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Washington’s charter-school pioneers need to be bold

Three Washington educators are at the forefront of the state’s new charter school effort. Columnist Lynne K. Varner welcomes them to this exciting endeavor.

Times editorial columnist

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Today I’m welcoming to the scene three Washington state educators with huge ambitions to raise high-school graduation rates and enroll more kids in college. Their success could serve as a blueprint for improving schools here and elsewhere.

Brenda McDonald, Kristina Bellamy-McClain and Maggie O’Sullivan left their jobs as public-high-school principals to work with the Washington State Charter Schools Association to launch the state’s first public charter schools.

South King County, Tacoma and Spokane are being scouted for potential sites and school-district partnerships.

McDonald is a 20-year veteran and recent principal at Garry Middle School, located in one of Spokane’s poorest neighborhoods. Her answer to the unmet needs of Spokane students would be Pride Prep, a college-preparatory charter school for sixth- through 12th-graders.

McDonald, who has taught special-education subjects and general-education math, envisions seven years of foreign language and an emphasis on math and science.

Bellamy-McClain, a former Seattle Public Schools principal — including at Denny International Middle School and Emerson Elementary — is pinning her innovative hopes on SOAR Academy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. SOAR is an acronym for Success, Outcomes, Arts and Rigor.

“I could see how my traditional (education) setting was not meeting the needs of all of my students,” Bellamy-McClain said. “If the mold isn’t fitting, we educators have a responsibility to change things.

O’Sullivan’s school would focus on the “Bermuda Triangle” — as Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously referred to middle school because of the high number of students who stumble during this period.

I caught up with the three women by phone as they toured one of the nation’s most extensive public charter systems located in New Orleans, a feat that is part innovation and part necessity after Hurricane Katrina washed away the old school system in 2005.

The women are energetic and brimming with ideas. They speak of long hours for themselves and their students and creating environments where English Language Learners, special-education students and children of color are the norm, not the tolerated exceptions.

I believe these women can be another smart tool in the educational toolbox. But the path is steep. They obviously are committed since they are devoting their lives to this endeavor for the foreseeable future. They should be assured that their view is backed by a Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup Poll released this month that found Americans’ support for public charter schools remains high at just under 70 percent.

Another piece of advice: Go big with reform ideas or go home, to paraphrase a Hollywood movie line. The most successful schools are doing big, innovative things, including demanding the right to preapprove teachers, ignore bureaucratic rules that do not make sense and create new options that may not work for the system as a whole, but do wonders for their school. I’ve seen a lot of this quiet but powerful transformation at schools, most recently at Rainier Beach High School, which is enjoying a rise in student achievement.

Next, build lasting ties with traditional public schools. Indeed, O’Sullivan was smart to choose South King County, home to innovative public-school efforts including the TAF Academy, a school run by the Technology Access Foundation with the mission of boosting the ranks of kids of color studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There is also the widely respected school-improvement effort called the Road Map Project.

Leverage those relationships. The smartest people in education will know you’re not a competitor, but a potential partner. Sadly, there are enough needy students to go around.

Hire the best teachers, whether from the school nearby or the high-tech giant across the lake.

Lastly: be fiscally transparent. I’ve seen the billions that flow into public education each year put to good use and I’ve seen it put to horrible use, paying incompetent principals and teachers to go away or to ink bogus contracts and sweetheart deals. That’s not the part of public education you want to build upon.

Lynne K. Varner’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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