The first student I met at Summit Sierra charter school in Seattle was sharp, soft-spoken, and confident. I visited on a day when students were working independently on their goals, so I was imposing on her time, but she was gracious about the interruption.

She walked me through Summit’s computer based program that keeps track of all the work she completes toward gaining admission to a college program. As a parent I saw the benefit of such a program immediately. She never has to wonder if she is on track. The program provides real-time information that keeps her on the same page with her parents and teacher. No need to wait for a report card or teacher’s conference.

Every six weeks students have “expeditions,” which is an elective two-week period where students can pursue subjects they care about like videography, cooking, civics, or topical focus areas like criminal justice, the stock market, or the Holocaust. For each area the school connects students with community experts.

Personalization is a key feature at Summit. Each student has a well-developed personal learning plan driven by their own interests, dreams, and goals. It’s a vision of education many schools say they want, but one few achieve for more than a pocket of lucky kids.

Often when I go into a school I see the disparity between their brochure and their reality. Websites promise lots of fanciful bells and whistles (a charter school on roller skates!) but you get in the building and notice kids are dead in the eyes, teachers are curt, and the surroundings are grim.

It’s always a good feeling to find a school with high ceilings, lots of sunlight, buoyant students, and staff who appear to have a good time. Summit is that kind of school.

Here I was, an old salty dog, sitting in a trendy common area with a group of 11 students of various racial and economic backgrounds. They came for an impromptu session to educate me about their school, and it was clear they were energized to tell their own story.

Lashaunychee, a spirited 9th grader, talked about her previous school, saying there were “cliques” that created a brutal social system. It was hard to fit in and enjoy learning. It’s a point I hear multiple times from the other students. Because of academic tracking and economic stratification, students say Seattle Public Schools is a hierarchical order for students, leaving many feeling like outcasts.

These students say Summit is a refuge. Some were bullied in previous schools, some were tracked out of important academic opportunities, and some had undiagnosed learning challenges the district schools missed. At Summit they have found a way to transcend differences; there is no dominant group, there are no tracks, there isn’t a hierarchy. It is truly a diverse school with a place for each kid to be as exceptional as God made them.

Everything I’ve told you so far is where I think the focus should be; squarely on students, their needs, their voices, and their place in the educational system we all pay into so children can develop to their potential.

The real story for me is how these kids have found small, safe, and challenging schools built just for them, and how dedicated they are to fighting for those schools.

Here they are at a rally for their schools….


And here they are marching on the state capital for their schools….


and here they are, active as public speakers, standing up for their schools…


and here they are being engaged citizens, organizing for their schools….



These are kids and their families from marginalized communities doing all the things we ask of them: taking an interest in their own education, supporting their schools, and being involved rather than sitting on the sidelines complaining.

But that is half the story. The other half is about people who want schools like Summit to shut their doors.

The students we talk endlessly about empowering are in jeopardy of having their dreams crushed beneath the wheels of Washington state’s machine politics. They’re staring down a powerful network of union-funded politicians, “professionals,” and privileged parents who want to ban charter schools and send these kids involuntarily back into malfunctioning district systems.

Voters approved a charter school law in 2012, but in 2015 that law was declared unconstitutional by a supreme court comprised of judges elected with money from teachers’ unions.

Seven out of nine of the justices received the maximum allowable campaign contribution from the Washington Education Association.

An independent analysis of the court’s decision showed the language in their decision was lifted directly from the brief filed by the WEA.

Here are the WEA lobbyists that went to that state capital recently to oppose charter schools:


Here they are in the halls of power….


Here, on the steps of power….


And here, ready to fight against school options for kids that need alternatives….


I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. But the message is clear, the kids are outnumbered in this fight.

The unionists aren’t allies because, apparently, unions only supports educational activists who are willing to chain themselves to half-empty failing schools and threaten to kill themselves with hunger as an ultimate show of loyalty.

Progressive parents might be Obama voters, but they want these kids to stay put in under-performing school districts so they can generate enough per pupil income to prop up a handful of tuition free “public” schools in neighborhoods with million dollar mortgages.

Leaders in communities impacted by ineffective schools are mute. Some of them are so politically ambitious and domesticated that they refuse to stare illiberal white bullshit directly in the face and renounce it on behalf of kids in their neighborhoods. Some have bought into the ridiculous idea that any attempt to fix broken schools is an “attack” on some public entity.

They need some real talk. They should straighten their backs, clear their throats, and call out the backward inequities that hurts children – or step down from whatever leadership perch they have.

They would probably tell me there are houses and cars to pay for, awards and elections to win.

If there is any bright spot to all of this it’s that I have met courageous people fighting for the lives of these new schools. There are activists, school leaders, and community members standing beside the students and their families in this battle royale. God bless them.

So, I’ll end where I began, with a student. One young person at Summit told me “I have never been so happy in a school.”

If you ignore that, you suck at being human.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


  1. Very sad situation. Having worked with charter advocates in Washington state for more than a decade, I found the Supreme Court decision deeply disturbing – as well as the opposition from the teachers union and organizations like the League of Women Voters.

    It’s noteworthy that both Republican and Democratic former state attorney generals from the state criticized the decision. Among other things the former AG’s pointed out that the court ignored programs like “Running Start” – Washington’s version of what we call Post Secondary Enrollment Options. That program uses “public education funds” though it is not controlled by elected school boards.


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