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Mixed debate over charter schools on the Harbor

Reaction to a potential charter school on the Harbor was a mixed bag and attendance was light during a state public forum on the issue in Hoquiam last week.

A military-style program for at-risk young people called the Evergreen State Leadership Academy has applied for state permission to open in the fall of 2014. The facility, proposed to go at the former Grays Harbor Seaport building at Junction City, would serve mainly the Twin Harbors but also some students from Mason and Thurston counties for grades six through 12.

The program would be operated by William and Catherine Lay of Central Park. They founded a similar charter school program in Oregon before moving to the Harbor.

A retired Elma school teacher, Diana Hill, of Montesano, spoke in favor of the proposed charter school. She said that she taught high school, elementary and preschool levels in both special and general education classes, but believes in the promise of the new charter school.

“I’ve been excited since I’ve come to know about the program,” she said. She said her own son was unable to be successful in school, or an alternative program, but ended up “acing” his GED. He “is someone who could have benefited from a school like this,” she added.

She emphasized that the school’s goal, which the Lays promote, is to help the student transition, so that “they get to be able to handle the regular classroom and be successful in a regular classroom.”

But teacher’s union presidents in Aberdeen and Hoquiam urged the State Charter School Commission to be more cautious in their approach. They noted that the Lays’ charter school in Oregon, which is ranked in the bottom 5th percentile for the state.

“That seemed glaring to me,” said Laurie Gordon, president of the Hoquiam Teachers’ Association. She added that while she appreciated the goals of the academy, she believes many of the components Lay addressed, like accountability, are already playing out in the school district. “We start at 8:05, and that doesn’t mean 8:06.”

Joan Lesman, president of the Aberdeen Teacher’s Association, said she, too, feels that many of the components of the proposed charter school are already playing out in the school districts. She added that while she is “not exactly sure how funding for charter schools works,” she worries about the school district’s budget and the impact the academy’s estimate of eventually taking up to 230 children may have in this area with high levels of poverty.

The Lays say the comments were not a surprise, due to the level of court action the teachers’ unions have had with this new law.

“It was to be expected. I think once we are established and they get to know us, they’ll see we won’t destroy their economy as much as they think we will,” he said, adding their main focus is as a “service industry,” to aid the districts, not work against them.

Lay told the board the academy, while military-influenced with uniforms a team-centric approach, is not a “boot-camp” program. However, he said they do hope for accreditation from the armed forces as a Tier One military institution like the designation that is held by the academy in Oregon.

The Lays note the Oregon school was created to help push students back into regular school. The proposed charter school in Aberdeen will focus more on graduating in the current program.

The Washington State Charter School Commission will also accept written comments on the proposals. They are to be limited to one page of 12-point font, and sent to Washington State Charter School Commission, P.O. Box 40996 Olympia, WA 98504-0996.