By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Not many people are aware that Chinatown/International District has a new charter school. For those who know there is one, myths and misconceptions exist. Who are the students? Are they achievers and smart? How are they chosen? How is it different from a regular public school? Are charter schools supposed to be better than public schools? Is this an asset in the community?
From the outside, no one can tell the former building of the Asian Resource Center is now the Summit Public (Charter) school housing 120 students of the 9th grade. (The school name is not really visible if you walk or drive past the road.)
Once you step inside, you seem to be in a different world—bright, inviting, modernly-designed small classrooms filled with diverse students engaging with their teachers or working on assignments with laptops, focused, and eager to learn.
I visited Summit last Friday afternoon, an hour before school ended at 3:30 p.m. Usually kids behave restlessly, thinking about going home and their weekend activities. (This was me when I was in 9th grade.) But the students at Summit showed no signs of distraction, slowing down, or goofing off. No one even checked the time. No one even mentioned that Labor Day, a long weekend, was coming. These kids also started school early on Aug. 17, two weeks before the Seattle Public Schools.
The Asian Weekly learned that several students actually picked the school themselves. An Vu, of Vietnamese descent, and Ashley Clark, an African American, both 14, told the Asian Weekly that they picked Summit themselves, and are excited to come to school everyday, while they had anxiety and depression when going to their old schools.
What caught Vu’s eyes first when he read a brochure about Summit, “It gives free laptops,” he said.
Vu said he likes the fact that he is being challenged, and he enjoyed seeing his progress at Summit.
What caused Clark’s anxiety about going to school before? She worried “how other kids treated me,” she said about her old school.
A Vietnamese-Chinese Van To, a Northend parent, said his daughter picked Summit after studying many other schools’ websites. To said, “The school (Summit) is smaller. Kids learn better. It’s less complicated. I worry about my kid getting mixed up with bad kids in a big school. My daughter likes it here.”
There is a difference between students at Summit and other public schools, and that difference is the youth want to be there; they have a strong desire to learn, and be pushed to reach their potential.
How Summit builds diversity is through their intensive recruitment. Principal Malia Burns, 31, had spent one year visiting different community groups and schools with low-income families and homes, to recruit a diverse student body from all over Seattle and even outside the city, including Renton and Kent.
To ensure diversity, Burns said at Summit, “We have at-risk youth (so-call troublemakers) and special needs kids.”
Summit consists of ethnically diverse students from the African and African American community, white and Asian students (with majority Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese), from 15 different zip codes. Instead of grades as criteria for admission, the youth were selected through a lottery system. Presently, there is a waiting list.
Traditional schools’ approach regarding detention and suspension is not an option at Summit.
“We don’t have detentions,” said Burns. To deal with conflicts, “We have counselors, we focus on communication, and conversations.”
Burns said how she deals with conflicts is to bring opposing parties of students and mentors together so that they have a face-to-face dialogue to lay misunderstandings on the table. Resolving conflicts through dialogue becomes a tool for students to grow and enhance life skills and self-awareness.
To develop ownership of the school, the students are encouraged to create their own mascot. Divided into four groups, each group had to compete, campaign, and rally for their own choice to win votes from their peers. The winning group, has advocated a Spartan as the school mascot, and now the Spartan is in. Summit thinks differently to nurture students to reach their potential and simultaneously create new experiences for them. As Washington state Supreme Court’s decision on shutting down charter schools’ financially, it will be another learning experience for the students and parents to fight for their education and school. Summit will seize the opportunity to engage kids in politics and how to make things happening for themselves.
Although young, Burns has a successful track record as a teacher and a school administrator in charter schools. She relates to students well and is accessible to students. A traditional school’s principal’s office is intimidating. However, Burns’ room is cozy, warm and small, and students can even use her room sometimes. The teachers’ lounge is more like a students’ corner—a casual space for them to brainstorm new ideas and collaborate.
Last year, Pacific Charter School Development (PCSD) has bought the former Asian Resource Center for their tenant Summit Sierra school and also did the remodeling as well. (Both Sierra and PCSD are headquartered in California.) After one year, the school has remodeled with an additional floor, totaling 28,800 sq. ft., to accommodate its high school freshmen, for the founding class of 2019. The remodeling cost $5 million and the building cost about $4 million. PCSD received grants and support from the Gates Foundation and other sources.
An eye-catching red stairway connects between the floors and students are welcome to hang out and do work under the stairway. A piano is placed in the main room, which is often used as a meeting place for parents and a assembly room for students. The layout appeals to youth and adults as well. Hopefully the charter school will continue to be a part of the neighborhood. (end)