Kitsap’s first charter school opens amid the pandemic

Aug 20, 2020 | Blog

BREMERTON — This wasn’t how Amanda Gardner and Tatiana Epanchin pictured opening Kitsap County’s first charter school.

Catalyst Public Schools will launch its inaugural year on Sept. 8 with all remote learning, a move that all other public schools in Kitsap and North Mason counties have adopted to curb transmission of COVID-19 on the advice of public health officials.

The vast majority of K-12 public schools around the state have opted for a remote start on Sept. 8, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Gardner laughs when asked about opening a school in the middle of a pandemic.

 “It’s definitely not a great time to start, but it’s going really well,” she said. “I feel like we’ve done a good job navigating the challenges.”

Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free independent schools that operate in Washington under legislation passed in 2016. Enrollment at Catalyst charter school, located at 13th Street between Hayward and Ironsides avenues in Bremerton’s Manette neighborhood, is open to all students with no screening tests or interviews.

Catalyst is one of 13 charter schools in Washington State, including four that opened this year.

Gardner and Epanchin,co-directors and founders of the school, both have operated charter schools in large urban areas; Gardner in Boston, Epanchin in Oakland. 

Catalyst is starting its first year enrolling students in kindergarten and first grade, and fifth and sixth grade. New grades will be added each year up to eighth grade. Catalyst’s ultimate capacity will be 504 students.

Support for different learning styles

Parent Tiffany Hye of North Kitsap said she was intrigued when she first heard rumors about a charter school coming to Kitsap County. She had done research on charter schools in college and liked the emphasis on individualized learning.

Her youngest, Zephan, 7, will  be starting first grade at Catalyst. She hopes to enroll her older son Zion, 8, when his grade becomes available. Zephan has an individual learning plan. He has trouble retaining information, but he is strong in music and art, and he thrives with movement.

“You talk about (regular K-12) schools, you talk about a system,” Hye said. “I value teachers and all those things, but if you don’t have everything you need for the system to work, it doesn’t necessarily work for that child. For Zephan, the system wasn’t working.”

Hye feels optimistic about Catalyst. “I feel I’m going to be able to walk in there knowing these teachers really know my child,” she said.

Hye also likes the diversity of the school, where about half of those enrolled are students of color. 

“Now Zepahn, he’s not going to be the only African American in the class, and to me that’s huge,” Hye said.

Renovation of old building

Finishing touches are wrapping up on a major remodel of the building on Ironsides  Avenue that began its life as the old Manette Elementary School and will now house Catalyst students. Catalyst is leasing one side of the building from owner Discovery Fellowship, with an option to purchase. The church intends to move to a more central location.

Because of COVID-19, the new heating and ventilation system has been outfitted with an ultraviolet light filter.

The remodel, which began in February, creates a space with 12 classrooms and a cafeteria that will be used for assemblies and activities. A playground that was added will sit idle for now.

On Wednesday, teachers were setting up their classrooms. Most will conduct online instruction from the school unless they’re considered high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Impacts of COVID on enrollment

Classes were supposed to start Wednesday, but school officials decided to push the opening date to after Labor Day in light of the complications of COVID-19.

Catalyst, initially licensed for 224 students, will cap this year’s enrollment at 170, because that’s how many students the school could accommodate with social distancing in place. When health officials give the green light to in-person instruction, there will be 15 students per classroom four or five days a week.

Some students receiving special education services will be taught on site part-time during the remote start.

There is a waitlist for kindergarten and first grade, but there are a few spaces in fifth and sixth grade, Gardner said.

Most enrolled at Catalyst are from Bremerton, although the school is open to any child “regardless of zip code.” Bremerton School District in its budget for this school year attributed a loss of 90 students to Catalyst. South Kitsap and Belfair are the other main areas where students live.

More than half of the students qualify as low-income, eligible for free- and reduced cost lunches among other services.

Online-only start

Hye said she had concerns when she heard the school would start with remote learning. Last spring was a struggle since both she and her husband, who works in the shipyard, are considered essential workers. She is fortunate to have a sister and her mother who are able to take care of Zephan and help him with schoolwork during the day.

Regardless of when in-person learning becomes an option, Catalyst plans to offer remote learning at least for the rest of the year. In a strange twist, the shift to online learning has given new meaning to “regardless of zip code.” Catalyst this year has enrolled two students from Spokane, one from Tacoma and two from Seattle.

 “That’s been kind of an interesting unintended consequence of this,” Gardner said.

Catalyst had a dress rehearsal for this fall’s online start in that it offered an online “summer camp” for students in pre-K through first grade, and for students in third and fourth grade.

More than 100 students and their families signed up for one of two camp sessions. Teachers conducted classes via Zoom. The camp’s virtual “launch pad,” similar to what students will use this fall, has links to everything they’ll need, from daily schedules, to guided activities, all on the main page.

“We ran out of spots for each of the camps we did, and we learned a ton about how to make learning engaging for kids,” Gardner said.

The online camp, offered because of the stay-home order, also turned out to be a good marketing tool for Catalyst, with a number of campers enrolling as students. 

Each incoming student will get an iPad and all the materials needed for lessons.

Gardner said the disruption of the education system due to COVID-19 has presented both a challenge and an opportunity for Catalyst.

“I do think the pandemic has put a light on school choice,” she said. “I think parents are looking around more than they were before.”