WA Charters sat down with Walter Chen, Green Dot Public Schools’ founding principal for its new middle school in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, set to open to sixth graders in fall 2017. Here’s what we learned about where Walter’s been, what fuels his passion for public education, and what he is envisioning for a new high-quality charter public school in his local neighborhood.
When did you discover that public education was your calling?
I began my teaching career as a middle school math teacher in South Central Los Angeles, where I taught for six years. A native Washingtonian, I returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2010 to teach in Renton Public Schools. I fell in love with the students and families in the Rainier Valley and worked as a Principal Intern at South Shore PK-8 School in Rainier Beach while completing my administrative credential. I’ve had the privilege to serve as Assistant Principal at Aki Kurose Middle School and most recently was the proud Principal of Graham Hill Elementary.
What inspired your shift from a teacher to a school leader?
I had access to some incredible coaches and mentors who guided me through some challenging times as a first-year teacher. Early on I was also fortunate to step into leadership positions such as math department chair and new teacher mentor. These collective experiences showed me the impact of strong coaching and professional development on teacher practice and student learning. I knew someday that I wanted to make a broader influence on students by collaborating and working with adults as a school leader.
Tell us about your own educational history.
I grew up and attended public schools on Mercer Island. After high school I attended Pomona College in Claremont, CA where I graduated with a B.A. in Economics. I earned a Master of Education and teaching certificate from the University of California, Los Angeles. Most recently I earned my administrative credential from the University of Washington’s Danforth Educational Leadership Program (Woof!).
What is your personal connection to the region?
I am a Pacific Northwest native, born in Seattle after my parents emigrated from Taiwan to attend college in the United States. Since returning from California I’ve now worked and/or lived in the Rainier Valley for the past seven years. As a resident, husband, and now father, I feel deeply connected to this community and to the social, emotional and academic well being of children and families in the Rainier Valley. I believe strongly that great schools form the foundation for great communities and outcomes for our children.
You and your wife are new parents! How has becoming a parent changed or informed your vision for and your work in public education in Seattle?
I’ve always sought to teach and lead in a school as if my own child was sitting in the classroom. Becoming a parent has made this work even more real by putting my daughter’s face to every decision that’s made and every child that comes into my office. It’s solidified how much I believe we should be creating schools that meet the high standard, care, and rigor we’d want for our own kids.
What makes you most excited about Green Dot Public Schools opening a school in the Rainier Valley?
Southeast Seattle is such a vibrant and diverse community—in terms of race, income, age and religion—and one that’s so passionate about what’s going on in the neighborhood and invested in making things better, especially our schools. During the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to engage with community members about their hopes and dreams for a new school and people are genuinely excited about a school with a college-going culture that authentically welcomes families to the table. I’m excited to create an inclusive space where we can learn from our diverse families while celebrating the gifts and culture that every family brings. Most importantly, I’m just thrilled to build an excellent school right here in my local neighborhood.
What drew you to shift from your previous role as a district principal to this new role as founding school leader at Green Dot South Seattle?
I’ve always been drawn to Green Dot’s mission to serve and prepare all students for college from my time in Los Angeles when my wife was a Chemistry teacher at Animo South LA. I was intrigued to learn Green Dot was coming to Washington state, and the opportunity to help found a new school in my own neighborhood was too extraordinary to pass up, especially as I learned more about Green Dot’s efforts to authentically engage with families and the local community. I see my work now as an extension of my work at Graham Hill and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to build a joyful and rigorous college-going culture from the ground up.
Is there anything that you would you like to share with parents who are considering Green Dot as a middle school option for their children?
At Green Dot we have an unwavering belief in every student’s potential and are committed to building deep, caring relationships with our families and community to provide students the best educational experience possible. We believe every student should have the option to attend college and find a career of their choosing, and our teachers and staff will work tirelessly to put them on that path. I would encourage parents to learn as much as possible about the public school options in the neighborhood and welcome them to attend one of our information sessions. I’d also love to connect with them directly to learn about how we might be great partners. Families can learn more and enroll a student on our website or if you have questions free to call us at 206-305-0646 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
I often find myself wishing to be in multiple places at once, whether at school or out and about on the weekend. Having the Flash’s speed would come in quite handy.