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Originally published December 3, 2012 at 8:35 PM | Page modified December 4, 2012 at 8:45 AM

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7 apply to be Seattle district's first Creative Approach Schools

Throughout the campaign over this year's charter-school initiative, a number of Seattle's school leaders argued that Seattle didn't need charters to build and nurture innovative teaching. By giving a number of schools new flexibility next fall, they hope to prove it.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Throughout the campaign over this year's charter-school initiative, a number of Seattle's education leaders argued that Seattle didn't need charters to build and nurture innovative schools.

Now they hope to prove it.

In the next few weeks, a district-union committee will recommend which Seattle schools should become Creative Approach Schools next fall — schools that, like charters, will have the flexibility to try new ways to raise the achievement of students, especially those from poor families.

Seven schools submitted final applications Friday. They include NOVA, an alternative high school that wants to expand into the middle-school grades, and Hawthorne Elementary, which hopes to become a feeder school for nearby Cleveland High's science, math and technology program.

Cleveland has applied, too, one of several schools that simply want to strengthen and expand programs they started years — or decades — ago.

The other applicants are Denny International Middle, Queen Anne Elementary, Thornton Creek Elementary and the World School.

If their applications are approved, the schools will start three-year terms as Creative Approach Schools a full year before the first charter schools are likely to open in Washington state.

The idea for the Creative Approach program grew out of negotiations between union and district leaders over the 2010 teachers contract. One hope they had was that the program would undercut the call to bring charter schools to Washington.

"My hope is that we stop thinking so dogmatically about what can work in public education," said Seattle Education President Jonathan Knapp, one of the program's architects. "In the past 10 years, we've had so many prescriptive answers about what public education needs ... and teachers' voices have not been brought to the fore."

But the program is not without doubters, who question everything from whether it will provide schools enough freedom to whether parents would have enough say in any changes.

The Creative Approach Schools won't be just like charter schools. They still will be part of the school district, not run by private nonprofits. They still will have to use the district's new teacher-evaluation system, and they won't have as much control over their budgets as charters would.

They also won't get any more money than they otherwise would, unless they raise it on their own.

But they can ask for waivers from most district rules and regulations, even those in the teachers' contract.

Together, the schools have asked for everything from the ability to buy their own books to — in the case of Queen Anne Elementary — run its own lunch program.

All seven want more control over hiring their staff, especially to turn away teaching applicants who don't have the background or the desire to embrace the school's direction. A number also want to be able to hire teachers who apply from outside as well as inside the district.

"It's difficult when you end up with staff that don't agree with what you're trying to do as a whole," said Sandra Scott, Hawthorne Elementary principal.

Many district leaders hope the program will show Seattle doesn't need outside help to improve, that teachers, principals and parents know how best to help students.

"I think it can work," said School Board President Michael DeBell, "especially if we get early successes with the first schools."

DeBell also said the program may help identify policies that hurt schools rather than help them. If the schools in the program can show that parts of the teachers' contract or other board policies stand in the way of progress, he said, then the board and the superintendent need to look at changing them.

Skepticism

Yet those high hopes stand alongside skepticism and concern, most of which has focused on just who controls the program and how.

A union-district committee designed much of the program, without as much board and public input as some thought should occur.

Some School Board members, especially Sharon Peaslee, support the idea of Creative Approach Schools but are pushing to redesign the program with more input from board members, parents and others.

"This is a conversation that I think we really need to have," she said.

But she doesn't expect any redesign to slow down the school-approval process this year.

Peaslee has raised other concerns, too, including whether parents are being given enough say. While DeBell and others say no application without strong parental support would be approved, Peaslee said that would be easy to fake since there is no threshold for how much is needed.

For staff, in contrast, 80 percent of teachers must vote to approve an application for it to be considered.

Charter-school supporters are dubious as well, saying Creative Approach Schools will be charter-lite schools, without full control over their staffing or curriculum.

"Some folks can do really well with a charter-lite kind of environment," said Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education and a longtime charter-school researcher. "But the question is: How different will the results be if you're not changing things up very dramatically?"

The district expects to name the first Creative Approach Schools by the end of January. The superintendent and the board, which must approve any policy waivers, can select all seven schools, or none.

Although some initially feared that all the applicants would be schools in wealthy areas of the city, that didn't happen.

Still, only two — Hawthorne Elementary and Denny Middle — are neighborhood schools, while the other five are so-called option schools that already attract students by offering a special focus.

Knapp, however, stressed that to be successful, applicants can't just seek support for an existing program.

If a school is having good success with what it's already doing, he said. "I don't know why you would have to have a Creative Approach School."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @LShawST

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