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Proposed charter school in Grays Harbor appears dead on arrival

A proposed charter school in Aberdeen appears dead on arrival, after an expert panel of educators recommended that the state deny the application made by a Central Park couple to start a military-style academy for at-risk kids based on a model they started in Oregon.

In all, just six charter schools out of 19 applicants received positive reviews in the analysis made by two Charter Schools proponents, David Hruby and Rachel Ksenyak, who have been successful in other states, and former state superintendent of public instruction Judith Billings. Those schools recommended to be the first charter schools under a voter-approved initiative include schools in Kent, Tacoma, Highline and Seattle. No proposals outside of King County or Pierce County have been given the green light.

The state Charter Schools Commission posted the reviews on Monday and were preparing to give their final recommendations on Thursday.

The Evergreen Leadership Academy, submitted by Central Park residents William and Catherine Lay, was being proposed to go at the former location of the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport at Junction City.

They hoped to serve 120 middle school and high schoolers in a combined school their first year, with hopes to start in 2014. The Lays had started a similar program in Oregon called the Willamette Leadership Academy, where students were called cadets and given ranks and teachers were their superior officers. The Lays helped lead the Oregon school from 1993 to 2006 and planned to be in charge of the Grays Harbor school, as well.

The review of the Lays proposal was particularly harsh, saying that their “educational program overview is not sufficiently clear, developed, or compelling. The plan fails to identify primary instructional methods and assessment strategies, non-negotiable elements of the school model, evidence that promises success, or culturally responsive aspects of the program. … The applicant failed to identify specific or measurable student performance expectations, or a sound plan for using internal and external assessments to measure and report student progress.”

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

Retired Elma school teacher Diana Hill of Montesano had spoken in favor of the proposal, while current and former union leaders in Aberdeen and Hoquiam spoke against it, citing many of the problems that the reviewers identified in their own analysis.

FAILS TO MEET STANDARDS

There’s very little praise for the Lays or their ideas throughout the 12-page report, which says the plan doesn’t fully meet any of the standards under educational program design and capacity, organizational plan and capacity, financial plan and capacity nor the existing operator standard.

“In the proposal and during the interview, the Lays described at length their numerous successes in working with the target student population,” the review states. “While these successes should certainly be lauded, the plan as presented does not provide an adequate blue print for a high quality public charter school.”

The criticism extended to the school’s organizational plan and capacity, noting that there would be too many conflicts of interest with William Lay serving as the school’s leader and as the school’s founder. The review also notes that while the Seaport Building appears functional, it would need renovations and the Lays said they would rely on volunteer support and seek donated materials to do those renovations.

“While the facility is a strength, the back-up plan for resources related to renovations does not inspire confidence,” the review states.

LOW PAY

The review said the proposal would have difficulty attracting quality staff because “compensation for staff is extremely low.”

A half-time principal would make $42,000, while teachers would make $32,000 and the plan talked about offering “cadillac” benefit packages, “however, the budget does not reflect significant benefits nor does it seem likely to realistically offset the below-market salaries.”

The review also questions the ability “to attract and retain the high caliber of educators needed to provide the level and quality of services needed to adequately meet the needs of their target student population.”

There are also questions on if books will be current, how the facilities would be funded and whether the existing Oregon charter school would “step in to lend financial assistance” if the Grays Harbor facility goes broke.

The existing charter school in Oregon has 269 students and the review notes that the “school performed in the bottom 5 percent of all public schools in Oregon. In comparison to high schools with similar student demographics, the Willamette Leadership Academy still performed in the bottom third of comparison schools.”

“The applicant did not adequately demonstrate a track record of academic success serving a similar student population,” the review states. “In addition, the proposal does not inspire confidence that PYCO, the parent organization, has developed a thorough business plan and infrastructure to launch and support a new school in Washington. Finally, the existing school, WLA school has a history of low financial performance and non-renewal.”

The review states that the Lays say that their school can’t really be compared to any other school because it “is so significantly different than any other school.”

“Without debating the validity of this statement, when reported academic performance is not strong, the onus is on the applicant to use data to tell their story of success, and convince the authorizer how and why the school is making reasonable progress with the students they serve,” the review states. “… While the applicant gave anecdotal evidence of their impact, they were unable to describe their success over WLA’s 20-year history in any measurable way.”

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