By Arlene Dennistoun
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Seattle’s first Green Dot Public School is set to open to sixth graders in Rainier Valley this fall, with Walter Chen at its helm as founding principal. “We believe in making sure every child, no matter what community or zip code they’re from, has access to really amazing schools with great teachers,” said Chen.
Charter schools’ legal standing
Initiative 1240, passed by voters in a tight race (51 to 49 percent) paved the way for state charter schools in 2012. By 2015, about 1,200 students attended charter schools throughout the state. But in November of the same year, the Washington Supreme Court held the charter school law unconstitutional.
The charter school disagreement escalated at the state legislature in 2016. Opponents claimed that charter schools siphon off funds from traditional public schools and its board members are not elected and thus, not directly accountable to the public. Supporters argued that charter schools follow the same requirements and assessments, are subject to the same laws, and offer alternative and innovative teaching programs for traditionally underserved communities.
After lengthy debate, a new charter school law passed in 2016, granting students a reprieve from the prospect of closing its doors.
Chen isn’t worried about future lawsuits — he’s focused on community outreach, and getting personal referrals from counselors and others to reach kids who may be falling through the cracks and who may do well in smaller schools. Green Dot Middle School is one of four charter schools operating or set to open this fall in Seattle. Green Dot Destiny Middle School began in Tacoma in 2015.
Options for diverse families
“We want to make sure we’re attracting students who are representative of the diverse population in Rainier Valley, and that means reaching out to families and students who may have felt the traditional school hasn’t worked for them,” said Chen.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of support from families with school-age children. They’re genuinely excited about the prospect of more high quality public school options in southeast Seattle. This movement has brought a sense of optimism and hope about public schools in their neighborhood,” said Chen.
On March 22, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released its annual state-by-state ranking of charter public school laws, Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of State Charter Public School Laws, Eighth Edition.
Washington ranked 4th, Indiana was No. 1.
Chen enthusiastically rattled off reasons to appreciate charter school options. “We are a public school, nonreligious, nonprofit, and we’re free and open to all families.”
He said Green Dot is funded based on student enrollment, just like traditional public schools. If a student transfers from another public school to a charter school, the funding associated with that student follows him or her. There are no admission requirements.
Parents have always had the option of enrolling their children in one district or another through waivers or other exemptions. Barring other options such as charter schools, some parents send their kids to private schools, and that’s money that will never get into the public school system, said Chen. He hopes for better collaboration and partnership with school districts because “in the end, we’re all serving the children. We believe we can stem the tide of dropouts by keeping more students in school and that will benefit the entire community in the long run.”
As far as being accountable to the public, “I would argue we have an even higher level of oversight than traditional public schools,” said Chen. Charter schools must report all the same data as every other school, plus they have an additional layer of oversight by the Washington State Charter Commission that does regular audits to ensure charter schools meet academic goals and are fiscally responsible.
Charter school board meetings are open to the public, and are subject to the Public Records Act, public oversight, and all the same state regulations about accessibility, special education, common core standards, and end-of-the-year assessments.
With a reputation for innovation and serving the most at-risk students located in districts who are traditionally underserved, Chen said Green Dot starts with early recruiting and hiring of high-quality, highly motivated, mission aligned staff, with a goal towards hiring teachers who reflect the student population. Students have a longer school day and year, with extra time dedicated to literacy and math intervention if they fall behind, or enrichment for students ahead of their grade level.
Green Dot assigns students a teacher who acts as an adviser/mentor to ensure college awareness. Advisers and students visit a college campus every summer. Students receive lessons in emotional and social development and learn solid study habits. Students bond by forming groups that begin and end the day together. It builds a positive relationship with families as well, said Chen.
Green Dot schools attract teachers with its commitment to professional development so that novice or experienced teachers excel rapidly. Teachers get three hours of coaching and professional development weekly, and three weeks of training and development in the summer. Chen said he sometimes got only three days of training in the summer as a teacher.
A “religious experience”
Chen was born in Seattle to parents who emigrated from Taiwan. He grew up in Kent until his family moved to Mercer Island, so Chen and his brother could enroll in a school district with an excellent reputation. Chen went on to college, moving to California. While in college, he was shocked to find out that a child’s income, race, or zip code could determine their educational outcome. That was a “religious experience I couldn’t shake.”
Being exposed to the opportunity gap in the public education system for the first time in his life was the pivotal moment. Chen saw very few Asian American teachers and said, “It’s definitely an issue with parents of color when 90 percent of teachers are white.”
After graduating, Chen taught math in a south-central Los Angeles middle school and remained for six years before returning to Seattle with his wife. Chen taught for two years in the Renton School District, and he saw the tremendous impact that teachers had on the lives of students.
Next, Chen tackled leadership roles as a vice principal and as a principal. He saw few Asian Americans in leadership roles and understood how leadership could influence better teaching practices and empower teachers. “If we don’t have teachers of color, we will never have school leaders of color either.” Chen is the first Asian American to be a school leader at a charter public school in Washington State.
“We need more API education advocates.” The model minority myth hurts students, said Chen, and is one of the most overlooked aspects of the conversation around low-income schools and communities. There’s a tendency to look at the Asian Pacific Islander community as one large group when in reality, there’s data showing opportunity gaps are huge in the Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian populations, which in some cases, are equal to the Black and Latino population.
“That’s what happens when you lump Asian Americans into one group,” said Chen. An important part of what we do in education is ask ourselves whether we’re looking at specific groups in the community,” and not leaving any students behind.
Today, Chen, his wife, and two-year-old daughter (and another on the way!) live in Rainier Valley, one of the most diverse cities in the country. He enjoys taking his daughter to the park, cheering on the local sports teams, and exploring Seattle one meal at a time. Both his children will enter public school in Rainier Valley, making Chen’s dedication to the “social, emotional, and academic development of kids and their families that much stronger. My commitment and connection to the community are very real. I take it as a very special privilege to lead and work in the community I live in.”
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.