Groups take first step to opening charter schools

SEATTLE (AP) — Parents and the education community got a glimpse Tuesday of the groups seeking to open Washington state's first charter schools next fall, though some say there isn't enough time to establish an institution by then.

A total of 23 organizations have submitted electronic letters of intent, Joshua Halsey, executive director of the Charter School Commission, said about an hour before the Tuesday afternoon deadline.

Organizations interested in operating one of the new public schools were required to turn in a letter of intent this week. They have another month to complete their applications.

Those who have expressed interest in opening a school include two charter management organizations that run charter schools in California. Several private schools have expressed interest in converting to charters. And a number of others are making their first attempt to start a school.

Washington voters approved a law last November to establish charters, which are public schools independently operated by approved nonprofit organizations. They are free and open to all students. They will receive state funding based on student enrollment like other public schools but will not be required to follow all the same state laws.

The applications, which are due Nov. 22, must include plans for a building, curriculum, budget, staffing and other details. The statewide Charter School Commission plans to hold public hearings on the applications before announcing its decision by Feb. 24. Up to eight charter schools can open each year over the next five years.

Several organizations plan to submit their applications next month but do not want to open a school in fall 2014. That includes the two charter management organizations, Green Dot Public Schools and Summit Public Schools.

The leader of a new Washington organization helping groups that want to open charters believes it would be very difficult to open a school by next fall.

"All of the groundwork takes time," said Marta Reyes-Newberry, interim CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association.

In addition to finding a building, figuring out the finances and planning the curriculum, some aspects of the new law are still being worked out, she said.

Roger Franklin, who wants to make the Cedar River Academy in Enumclaw a charter, said converting a school would be less challenging than starting from scratch. He said his application is nearly complete.

Cedar River is a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school that uses a constructiveness model. In the system, students learn through projects and teachers base the curriculum on student interests as well as state and national academic standards. It's a small school where many students receive scholarships for their tuition.

Bertha Alicia Garza and Larry Wewel, who want to start a dual-language elementary school in Yakima called the Cesar Chavez Charter School, also are not daunted by the fall 2014 deadline.

Wewel said the biggest challenge is completing the application, which they've been working on for months. "The real work needs to occur between now and Nov. 22," he said. "After approval, it's all downhill from there in putting a school together."