It's no miracle — 'miracle schools' cost money
For two decades the Seattle Urban Academy, in the Rainier Valley, has taken kids who dropped out or were kicked out of other schools and managed to graduate them at among the highest rates of any school for at-risk kids in the nation. The secret? It costs 80 percent more per student.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Have you heard of "miracle schools?"
Occasionally there are stories about them around the nation. They are schools that take castoffs and dropouts and somehow remake impressive numbers of them for success.
A few were featured in the 2010 movie "Waiting for Superman." Those were charter schools, which are controversial because they operate outside the normal school system.
But the stories are told in part to foster hope. It can be done, these schools seem to be saying.
We have such a miracle school here in Seattle. It's tiny, private and unheard-of. But for two decades the Seattle Urban Academy, in Rainier Valley, has taken kids who dropped out or were kicked out of other schools and managed to graduate them at among the highest rates of any school for at-risk kids in the nation.
The school's graduation rate is currently 86 percent — remarkable, considering the kids who go there were on track to count as zeros for flunking out of the public system. About six in 10 go on to college.
I dropped by to see how they do it. It's run out of a converted warehouse in the Othello neighborhood, across from the New Holly development.
It turns out it's no miracle.
Well, it is a Christian school, though you don't have to be Christian to go there. But when I asked, "What makes this school work?" nobody answered that it was the religion.
The No. 1 reason? The small class size.
"Above all else, it's that you can build relationships here," said history teacher Michael Friedland. He was helping a class of only six kids write essays.
"Before they came here, they probably never heard a teacher say, 'Today, I'm going to spend the afternoon with you, one on one.' That's central to what we do."
That's how the school got started in 1989 — as an afternoon mentoring program. It seemed so effective they expanded it into a four-year high school, but one still centered on the tutoring philosophy. Most classes have 10 or fewer students. One-on-one sessions happen daily.
They say it's the only thing that works with kids who have already gotten lost in the crowd.
"We call this a school of second chances, but for most of them it's really their third, sixth, ninth, twelfth chance," says Sharon Okamoto, the principal.
Her school is education's version of an intensive-care unit.
Here's the catch. Even though the school is nonunion, pays its teachers only about three-fourths of what public-school teachers make and gets free rent for its building, the cost to run the school is still more than $18,000 per student (almost all of which comes from private donors).
That's 80 percent more than the public schools spend, including all federal, state and local money. Total per-pupil spending averages $10,000 statewide, $12,000 in Seattle Public Schools, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
One of the least-discussed aspects of the miracle schools is that many of them cost a ton of money. Take Harlem Children's Zone, the charters featured in "Waiting for Superman." They cost about $4,000 more per student than the public schools, not counting nearly $5,000 per student in social services. The extra money mostly buys crucial individualized attention.
"In intensive care, the cost is going to be a lot more," Okamoto says. "There's no way around it. We haven't found another way that works."
We expect this, even demand it, in medicine. Why not with learning?
Seattle Urban Academy has proved itself over so many years that the state ought to copy it. They'd have to strip out the overt religion for the public system. But why not replicate the rest?
Instead, what passes as "educational reform" is a plan to set up 10 charter schools to replace failing, high-poverty public schools. But the reformers in the Legislature aren't providing a dime of extra money to help those charter schools succeed. That means there will be 30 kids in the high-poverty charter classes just like everywhere else.
The hope is that by getting rid of union rules and bureaucratic red tape, somehow that will be the key to solving the most intractable problem in education — how to reach at-risk kids.
Talk about hoping for a miracle.
I think we know very well what works. It isn't flashy or radical. We're just too cheap to do it.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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