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.

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.

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