Summit Atlas Charter School grand opening shows off newly expanded facility
By Patrick Robinson
The Summit Atlas Charter School at the corner of Roxbury Street SW and 35th SW is a very different and yet very familiar place. As a school most of the basics are there, and the aim for any school, quality education is the same you'd find anywhere. But the approach they take is interwoven with a spirit of gratitude, kindness, acceptance and support that sets it apart from other school environments. It's one of eight Summit Public charter schools in Washington.
Officially opened a year ago in a somewhat limited building the school held a grand opening ceremony on Saturday Aug. 4 to celebrate it's new more extensive expansion and remodel. The facility now offers 24 classrooms, common spaces, a kitchen where meals are served from, 8 "quiet rooms", and an outdoor basket ball court.
Summit Atlas now offers four grades, sixth, seventh, ninth and tenth grades with an eighth grade and 11th grade being added next year. The expected enrollment for the year is 360; when they are fully built out, they expect to serve about 700 students. The goal is 100 students per grade level. The school is in enrollment season right now and the first day of school is Aug. 21 with new student orientation the day before Aug. 20.
Charter schools have been the subject of controversy but largely because measuring education is nearly impossible due to the number of variables involved. Principal Katie Bubalo believes the concerns about them are largely based on misconceptions. I think it's because the Charter school is pretty new and there's still a lot to be learned by folks. I get asked pretty often what a Charter School is. A Charter School is a public school. In our state what that means is that it receives public funding. Just like any other public, district school. Our school is predominantly funded by tax dollars. Charter schools are non-profit. Some of the benefits of Summit are that we are smaller by design, all of our students have a one to one mentor. we are diverse by design. We don't have a single racial demographic over 35 percent. We are exactly 50% free and reduced lunch. 19 percent of our students qualify for Special Education. So we are really an 'All means All' type of school. The real piece of misinformation is that we all want what's best for kids. Our goal and focus is to make sure that every single student no matter where they are from, no matter what their past experience may be, no matter who they are has an opportunity to succeed in college. That is our goal. Everything we do is that. For us, collaborating with neighborhood schools and districts is really important. We keep our doors open to those partners. I think everyone is trying to do right by kids."
Bubalo and administrative staff share the same point of the pencil idea that, "There is no more important person in a school than the teacher. Teachers are more important than me, more important than the Operations Manager. They are more important than any adult in the building because they are the people who influence our kids and have an impact on our students directly more than anyone else," said Bubalo.
The curriculum is aligned to what are called "common core standards" which relates to English, Language Arts and Mathematics and college readiness skills. Operations Manager Zach Brewer said, "I think it's better than some schools because it's progressive and flexible. I think it's very cutting edge, state of the art in terms of the most recent education practices and scopes and sequences are very much top of the education world in a lot of ways because we have these teams who are just devoted to doing research and making sure it is really engaging for kids, interactive and topical. In that sense it doesn't have to go through the red tape and bureaucracy that some public schools might have to, to update their curriculum."
The design of the school and even what you see in a simple walk through are evidence of an atmosphere of support, awareness and acceptance. The quiet rooms serve as conference areas, foriegn language practice spaces, focused study and writing rooms, and student team meeting rooms. On the wall you see hanging a series of supportive "shout-outs" from one student to another offering words of praise or encouragement. On another wall you see art work promoting kindness and love. Even the bathrooms allow for those still exploring who they are to have a private space. There are "celebrations" every Friday that herald student growth, achievement, core values, and fun student competitions. "It's not for entertainment. It's for community building. A school at the heart of everything is a community."
Special education at Summit Atlas has its own name this year. It's a full inclusion model in that students are enrolled in the core curriculum, get support in Learning Center but those that have significant learning disabilites get specialized support in what they call the "Joy Academy." The program serves students in special education who may have disabilities that lead them to seek post-secondary outcomes other than four-year universities. "It's a program of academics, life skills and life preparation. For some of our students it would be learning how to pay rent, or go to a store independently," explained Bubalo.
A guiding concept at Summit Atlas is to help students become self directed learners. "We want to give students the skills to become teachers of themselves. Students don't come in self directed." With that in mind the average middle school classroom there is 20 to 25 students while the senior high classrooms carry around 15 to 20 students.
The school mascot is the Orca, "they are incredible animals, and they live in pods," said Bubalo, and student teams mirror that, but with a forward looking twist in that the pods are named after Colleges and Universities around the nation from the alma mater of the teacher who leads them.
Summit Atlas will have a library, with books of course, but the vast majority of the learning tools are provided electronically and each student is allowed to use a "Chromebook" which is Google's laptop device, a fully internet based tool. "We're not an online school," said Bubalo, "It's just that instead of a textbook, they carry around a Chromebook." But that doesn't mean students have unbridled access to the web. They can use the devices for instructional access only. This focused policy also extends to cellphones which can be a tremendous distraction for young people especially. "We have a strict no cell phone policy," said, Bubalo.
There is a music club but music instruction is not yet part of the Summit Atlas curriculum. Athletics are however despite having no athletic fields (there is a new outdoor basketball court on the south side) and the school has basketball team and soccer team at the high school level. This year they hope to expand that adding a cross country running team. There is a robust art instruction program and student art is prominently displayed on the school walls.
Possibly the best evidence for the philosophy that is foundational for Summit Atlas is what the staff does every morning at 7:45 am. Named after an Orca behavior they have a staff meeting they call a "spy hop" which is, "all of our teachers in a circle and there's a routine that we do to give ourselves perspective. To ground ourselves and keep an eye on what is going on we give each other shout outs. We end our twice a week professional development sessions with what we call "Sunshine" and for the next five minutes any teacher can volunteer a great story about a kid, a parent or staff member. It's a way for us to stay grounded in gratitude, and all the great work our community is doing."