At Seattle’s Summit Sierra High School, Special Needs Students Find Success

The Seventy Four reports on the Washington Supreme Court decision: Read our complete coverage
(Seattle, Washington) — Teacher Erica Baba is only a few minutes into a lesson on the Industrial Revolution when her ninth-grade history class skitters off track. She’s trying to tell a story about the wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that swept the West Coast in the 1880s when it becomes clear her students have wildly differing knowledge of local history.
Summit Sierra High School has been open just five months and its student body—one of the most diverse in Seattle—is on track to make an astounding three years’ academic growth in one year, according to school leader Malia Burns.
Before the teens arrived here, though, the only thing they had in common was the need for an alternative to their neighborhood schools. The school’s unique personalized learning model, shared by nine other Summit network schools in California and Washington, held the promise to finally meet their needs.
Then, two weeks into the school year, the Washington Supreme Court issued a decision that could close the state’s first nine charter schools. The threat has done more to unite Summit Sierra’s students and parents than all the community-building exercises in the world.
The controversial decision held that because charters, created two years ago by a ballot measure, do not have elected boards they do not count as the “common schools” entitled to receive revenue from the state’s general fund. Among the potential fixes before the Washington Legislature this year is a bill that would fund the schools with lottery dollars.
Carpooling from affluent hillside neighborhoods with multi-million-dollar views of Puget Sound and from blighted communities on the city’s Southside, students and parents have made the trek to the capitol in Olympia to lobby lawmakers. They’ve written letters and given tours and talked to reporters.
Summit Sierra High School student Jalen Johnson addresses the crowd rallying outside the state capitol in November to save charter schools. Photo credit: Provided by Summit Sierra High School
Confronted with the possibility of losing their new community, students and parents from different walks of life joined forces. “We all liked [the school] the minute we got there,” said student Victoria Johnson. “Our common goal was to save our school.”
Students have been making up for lost years of learning. More than half of entering freshmen were below grade level in math, and by an average of four years. Some 40 percent were behind in reading by an average of 3.5 years. Overall in the school’s first three months, students gained one year’s growth in reading and 1.25 in math.
Still, teacher Baba has her work cut out for her. The neighborhood where the school is located has experienced more than one wave of anti-Asian unrest. In the one she is asking her students to discuss, Chinese laborers were moving out of railroad construction and mining towns and into the rapidly industrializing cities. In 1886, three days of rioting ended with hundreds of immigrants dragged from their homes and forced onto ships.
On the wall Baba has projected a drawing of the violence. But as she talks, it becomes clear just one student has heard of the turmoil and of the law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring immigration from China.
A girl in the back of the room wearing a hijab raises her hand: “Is this tied to internment?”
Another student jumps in, adding that Pearl Harbor was the reason the U.S. government confined Japanese Americans to camps. Someone else asks whether the Gold Rush had anything to do with industrialization.
How to unite the disparate threads? Baba writes the word “Xenophobia” next to the images from the Washington Historical Society. And yes, she says to one student after another, the events being mentioned had major impacts on the area in Seattle now known as Little Saigon—but in different eras of history.
The lesson goes to the heart of Sierra’s rapidly coalescing school culture. In an effort to recruit as diverse a freshman class as possible while complying with the law that says admissions must be race- and needs-blind, the school’s founders visited community centers, middle schools and social service agencies.
The 110 students who signed up for Summit Sierra’s inaugural year come from all over the Seattle metropolitan area. Forty percent are black, and half of those are East African. The 28 percent who are Asian or Pacific Islanders descend from immigrants from Vietnam, China, Cambodia, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Twenty percent are white and 12 percent Latino. Twelve percent of all students at Summit Sierra have special education diagnoses, the same rate as in Seattle Public Schools, as well as a number of students on the less formal, so-called 504 plans sometimes created for kids with less intensive needs. The real number will ultimately be much higher, Burns believes.
Summit Sierra has attracted a high number of students who were unable to get their previous schools to acknowledge their learning disorders. Seattle Public Schools have been under intense state and federal scrutiny in the last three years for failing to provide appropriate special education services to disabled students.
The private schools that enroll 29 percent of the city’s school-aged children aren’t obligated to take special ed students, leaving even the wealthiest parents with few options. Charter schools in other parts of the country are frequently criticized for not doing enough to accept and educate special education students.
The neighboring Seattle Public Schools have some of the largest academic achievement gaps, with half as many black students performing at grade level in most subjects and in most years as white students. Proficiency rates for special education students are nearly as bad and scores for English language learners, even lower.
Yet resistance to change is intense. Washington became the first state in the nation to lose federal permission to shift away from No Child Left Behind when lawmakers refused to require the use of student data in teacher evaluations. The entire faculty at one high school in 2013 demanded that the student body refuse en masse to take end-of-course exams.
Jalen Johnson is one of the students who testified at the legislature in November and talked to individual lawmakers. He’s whip-smart — smart enough to have digested and poked holes in the logic of the court ruling endangering his new school — yet autism, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADD make school a struggle for him.
At the start of the last school year, Johnson, who is African American, asked his very well-regarded mainline district school for an Individual Education Plan, the legal document outlining the special education services he would receive for his autism and other psychiatric diagnoses. His family’s request never received an answer, he says.
In Johnson’s case, what that has looked like is a hodge-podge of placements where the sensory issues that make school overwhelming might or might not be taken seriously.
He can’t, for instance, stand the scratching sound of a pencil. When he was very small his family enrolled him in a parochial school where he was allowed to wear headphones and to use a keyboard, which did not grate on his nerves.
But good grades notwithstanding, when it came time to make the transition to middle school his family couldn’t find a Catholic program that would enroll Johnson. So he ended up back in a regular public school.
The parents of other Summit Sierra students tell similar tales of trying and failing to get special ed services for disabled children. Margo Gilliland’s family lives in an affluent neighborhood with great schools, but has never received appropriate support for her dyslexia.
In elementary school, she was pulled out of math class every day to read out loud to a dog, on the erroneous assumption that making reading more fun would somehow smooth the wrinkles in her brain. During middle school, her mother, Lynn Gilliland, shuttled her between two schools, a private one able to provide services in the morning and in the afternoon the district school Margo’s friends attended.
Before agreeing to enroll her daughter in a brand-new program, Gilliland and her daughter actually visited one of the Summit network schools in California. “We flew to San Francisco to see them,” Lynn Gilliland said. “Now I could sell this school to anyone.”
Sierra works for the girl for the same reason it works for Jalen Johnson: A small, supportive atmosphere coupled with the intensive use of technology. Though they attend traditional classes, each student designs their own personal learning plan. When they are ready, they take an online assessment to show whether they’ve mastered a given lesson.
Lynn Gilliland threw herself into trying to keep the school open. “I thought I had retired from advocacy,” she said. “But here we go.”
In the process, she’s formed a close relationship with Natalie Hester, Victoria Johnson’s mother who lives on the very different Southside of the city. Hester’s laments about the lack of school choice in Seattle have to do with race and geography.
Because Washington was still bound by the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind law, last year her fourth-grader was eligible to transfer out of their Southside neighborhood school, which was classified as failing. Unfortunately, the school she was eligible to transfer into was failing, too.
Her older daughter Victoria had similarly lackluster options for high school. One was a school in a neighborhood that’s the site of frequent shootings. The other was Garfield High, a storied program that is home to one of the district’s two programs for high achievers. But the Hesters, who are black, knew that students of color were far more likely to be enrolled in the school’s regular program—literally separated from the high-flyers by a floor.
Hester voted against the 2012 ballot measure that created charters. She was reluctant to send her daughter to one. But she attended a presentation Sierra’s founders made at Victoria’s middle school and came away enthralled with the idea of intentional diversity.
And then, in the space of a few months, Hester found herself making the trek to the capitol to demand lawmakers find a way to keep the school open. Like many other parents whose personal experience throws the politics of school choice into stark relief, she was galvanized by spending time in a school where all kids are expected to achieve.
“They say, ‘We need time,’” Hester observed. “Well, we’ve been talking about this since the ’70s. This school wants her to be as successful as I do.”
On Jan. 20, a bill that would fund the schools using state lottery money cleared the Washington Senate. Passage in the House is less assured. Opponents, including the state’s teachers union, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court action, have mounted a vocal campaign to paint charter schools as a form of privatization.
As a result, students who have come before lawmakers have fielded as many questions about teacher working conditions and school administration as they have about the programs’ ability to meet their needs.
Jalen Johnson wanted to talk about the nuts and bolts of how technology helped him to meet his teachers’ high expectations. He was stumped when a senator asked how much his teachers were paid.
At the legislative session’s first hearing on the charters’ future, students were asked a few critical questions about class sizes, admissions procedures and other adult concerns. But for the most part senators seemed pleased to be talking with young people and their parents about their experiences.
As the first group of students rose to testify, a senator interrupted. “I’m speaking not as a senator but as a mother,” she said. “I see people in the audience who are trying to figure out how to film their kids.”
Parents scrambled to the front of the room at her invitation.
“Instead of stressing people out and not giving advice on college, you can fix this situation,” advised a Tacoma sixth-grader who said she was never encouraged to strive for higher ed at her old school.
Another sixth-grader lost her place a moment into her testimony. “Are you good?” the committee chair asks after a short pause.
A Summit Sierra student’s voice trembled as she described the nightmare her social anxiety made regular school: “I got lost at regular schools and couldn’t speak up, but now I’m going to be the first in my family to go to college.”
So what happens if the safe haven is forced to close? Margo Gilliland has a ready answer. The school potentially has enough donors to ride out this year’s political fight. But in her opinion, what will really carry the day is the school’s success.
“The more we go on,” she said, “the more people will realize the good Summit is doing.”

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today